Agriculture can mitigate and adapt to climate change

Separating climate-change mitigation and adaptation in agricultural landscapes is counter-productive but can be fixed, say Minh Ha Hoang, Peter Minang and an international team of researchers


Addressing climate change, food security and poverty means we have to be able to adapt to, and also mitigate the impact of, the changes in our agricultural landscapes, particularly in the tropics.

Viet Nam, sloping land, climate-smart landscape

Climate-smart landscapes provide a range of services, like this one in northwestern Viet Nam. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Minh Ha Hoang

Adaptation and mitigation tend to be approached separately for a variety of technical, political, financial and socioeconomic reasons. But the reality is that in the tropics adapting and mitigating are often the same thing.  Especially if we think of landscapes rather than individual farms. If we can integrate adaptation and mitigation in agriculture we can reap substantial benefits. However, achieving this will require a transformation of policies, institutions and funding.

Pursuing adaptation and mitigation separately limits benefits, encourages inefficiencies in funding and prevents integrated management for climate, food, water and other ecosystem services. In many cases, it’s possible to improve both adaption and mitigation simply by changing management practices. For example, with annual crops, changing from conventional tillage and high agrochemical input to soil conservation can achieve both goals: more water is captured and soil organic matter increased (mitigation); and yields of maize, sorghum, wheat and other crops can be 20–120% higher (adaptation).

In perennial cropping systems, such as coffee or cocoa, the inclusion of a diverse, well-managed shade canopy and appropriate soil management can similarly confer both adaptation and mitigation benefits. Multifunctional trees maintain soil organic matter and fertility, stabilize production, diversify farmers’ livelihoods and provide ecosystem services in the landscape (adaptation); plus they generate high levels of plant biomass and soil carbon storage (mitigation).

In livestock systems, degraded pastures that have been converted to diverse silvo-pastoral systems, with fodder and timber trees interspersed within pastures of shade-tolerant grasses, improve the overall adaptive capacity of the system, greatly enhance carbon storage, increase cattle stocking rates and net per hectare income, enhance biodiversity, reduce the use of herbicides and fossil fuels, release areas for biodiversity protection and sequester additional carbon aboveground.

Thinking beyond farms to landscapes allows us to develop interventions such as conserving or repairing riparian areas or wetlands that regulate water flows to agriculture while also storing carbon in peat and sediments. Similarly, the conservation and management of trees, both within farms and in the surrounding landscape, improves landscape connectivity, conserves biodiversity, maintains critical carbon stocks and ensures the provision of ecosystem services that are essential for agriculture, such as pollination, pest control and water regulation.

Indeed, in some cases, adaptation and mitigation benefits will only be possible if action is taken across an entire landscape. For example, efforts to control flooding downstream depend on the adoption by upland farmers of sustainable land management, such as terraces, permanent soil cover and conservation of riparian forests.

But despite the high potential for synergy in adaptation and mitigation, there are still many barriers to the widespread creation of climate-smart landscapes. A primary technical one is the need for more analyses of when and where simultaneous adaptation and mitigation is most beneficial and cost effective. This must include developing indicators—such as agricultural production and resilience, adaptive capacity, mitigation potential, ecosystem services and human wellbeing—that can track different agricultural scenarios and inform decisions.

Multiple policy and institutional barriers also impede integration. At both international and national levels, adaptation and mitigation are addressed through different processes, discussed in parallel policy debates that are rarely linked, led by distinct ministries or institutions and involve different constituencies and funding sources.

For example, mitigation is primarily driven by international agreements—such as the Kyoto Protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—whereas most adaptation is focused on local or national actions designed to minimize the impact of climate change on local communities. Further, international policies address either mitigation or adaptation but not both (the Clean Development Mechanism doesn’t consider adaptation and the Cancun Adaptation Framework doesn’t explicitly mention the links between the two).

Within any given country, climate-change policy is rarely consistent with other polices. In the case of Indonesia, policies that promote the expansion of oil palm (both for food and biofuel) into new areas often conflict with policies designed to reduce emissions from deforestation and land degradation. Meanwhile, policies that support conventional agriculture (with high use of fossil fuels and synthetic inputs) often prevail over those that support sustainable, climate-smart practices. In addition, development planning is often short term (typically in 5–10-year cycles) whereas the integration of adaptation and mitigation requires thinking further ahead.

The persistence of separate, uncoordinated funding streams for adaptation and mitigation is another key barrier. Climate finance comes from a variety of sources, including the UNFCCC and other United Nations agencies, multilateral development banks, bilateral public funding, compliance and voluntary carbon markets, the private sector and philanthropy. The private sector is the greatest single source, accounting for approximately 74% of global climate finance. Mitigation activities are typically funded by the private sector and carbon finance, whereas adaptation measures tend to be supported by public funds, NGOs and donors interested in poverty alleviation, food security or disaster relief.

Socioeconomic factors can also limit widespread implementation, even if policy is appropriate and funding is sufficient. Poverty, cultural factors, income, education, access to markets and credit, investment costs, institutional capacity and lack of land and tree tenure, among others, are all known to restrict effective adoption.

All these barriers can be overcome through a combination of targeted scientific research, policy and institutional reforms and changes in funding modalities. A renewed, strengthened commitment to conservation agriculture, agroforestry and other best practices for agriculture—with more integrated landscape management– will help create tropical agricultural landscapes that can adapt and mitigate: contributing enormously to food security, poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation for the billions of people who rely on them.


Edited by Robert Finlayson


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Harvey CA, Chacón M, Donatti CI, Garen E, Hannah L, Andrade A, Bede L, Brown D, Calle A, Chará J, Clement C, Gray E, Hoang MH, Minang P, Rodríguez AM, Seeberg-Elverfeldt C, Semroc B, Shames S, Smukler S, Somarriba E, Torquebiau E, van Etten J, Wollenberg E. 2013. Climate-smart landscapes: opportunities and challenges for integrating adaptation and mitigation in tropical agriculture. Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/conl.12066

Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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