Harnessing the mitigation potential of soil carbon

Quinghai China. Photo:Cultural China

With attention turning to climate-smart agriculture, a new book analyses the mitigation potential of soil carbon and discusses lessons learned from pilot projects seeking to access carbon finance.

Developing countries are increasingly looking to formulate low emission agricultural growth strategies – such as climate-smart agriculture – that can also increase agricultural productivity to ensure food security. Any transition towards climate-smart agriculture requires the ability to assess the greenhouse gas emissions associated with various agricultural strategies as well as the related public and private costs and benefits of reducing these emissions.

There is enormous potential for improved agricultural practices, such as agroforestry, to significantly boost soil carbon but there is still a lack of field experience to quantify this mitigation potential. Concerns about whether it is actually possible to develop a system for monitoring and verifying emissions reductions from soil carbon have affected progress in realizing this potential.

Now the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has published Climate Change Mitigation Finance for Smallholder Agriculture: A guide book to harvesting soil carbon sequestration benefits which draws on experiences from agricultural soil carbon finance projects, including work by the World Agroforestry Centre in the rangelands of Qinghai on the Tibetan Plateau

Many believe that soil carbon sequestration is quite possibly the highest potential source of mitigation from the agricultural sector due to the sheer area of land in which additional soil carbon can be stored and the relatively low costs involved.

The changes in farming practices which are needed to increase carbon in agricultural soils often generate benefits to agricultural production in the long run, as well as mitigation benefits.

Since 2009, scientists from the World Agroforestry Centre’s China & East Asia Node have been providing technical support to an FAO-funded grassland carbon sequestration pilot project. Located in the alpine meadows of Qinghai Province, China, the project aims to support herders in restoring degraded rangelands, adopting sustainable grazing practices and improving the management of livestock and the marketing of livestock products.

Currently about half of the 20,000 hectares of rangelands in the project area are heavily or severely degraded. Restoring these degraded lands will generate the majority of emission reductions in the project. In addition to climate benefits, increased vegetation cover will reduce soil erosion and water runoff. Above all, the benefits of increased productivity and profits from livestock management after adopting improved management practices is what will provide the long-term benefits for the herders involved. Carbon finance will be used to support herders to make the transition from current to improved management approaches.

The FAO guidebook aims to provide an overview of potential mitigation finance opportunities for soil carbon sequestration. Such finance would be channeled into investments that assist developing countries to adopt low emissions pathways to agricultural development and poverty reduction.

The first section of the guidebook provides an overview of the opportunities for climate change mitigation from agricultural soil carbon sequestration. It also discusses possible policy options and institutional mechanisms for financing such mitigation as well as the opportunities for smallholders to participate in them.

The second section provides step-by-step practical support to project development. This is aimed primarily at carbon project developers and decision makers at the national level who are concerned with environmental and agriculture policies and incentives, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and farmers’ associations working towards rural development and poverty alleviation.

It is hoped the guidebook will provide lessons on both the opportunities and obstacles relating to agricultural soil carbon sequestration so that broader programs can be developed which combine mitigation objectives with development goals.


Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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