Ideas to Action:

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Views from the Center


Climate-smart agriculture is all the buzz in development circles. It is one of the World Bank’s five key areas for climate action and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon officially endorsed a proposal to establish an Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture. 

Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) really is a good idea. The term refers to approaches to agriculture that tackle the trifecta of improved food security, climate resilience, and greenhouse gas reduction. Agricultural production is responsible for an estimated 13 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, so reducing emissions from crop and livestock production is critical to slowing climate change.  Add to this the challenge of sustaining a population expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 and there is no question that it is vitally important to find ways to produce more food and provide economic opportunities for the rural poor without sacrificing the environment.

So how can climate-smart agriculture help to reduce climate change?

Proponents advocate a variety of strategies, including crop management practices that sequester carbon in soils, systems that integrate crop and livestock production, targeted and judicious use of fertilizer, careful breeding and selection of seed varieties,  efficient water management techniques, increased crop harvest frequency, appropriate application of micronutrients, and enhanced weather forecasting to inform the selection of planting dates. In the right combinations, these technical improvements can serve the dual purpose of increasing agricultural production while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing consumption of greenhouse gas-intensive beef production is also promoted as an element of the approach.

But most papers advocating climate-smart agriculture give scant attention to the largest contribution of agriculture to climate change—deforestation. A recent paper by Matt Hansen and his colleagues in Science used satellite data to show that global deforestation rates increased throughout the 2000s. In addition to the direct emissions of greenhouse gases from agricultural production, the net conversion of forests, savannas, and peatlands to agriculture accounts for roughly 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. As my colleague Jonah Busch explains, the potential to reduce the gross quantity of emissions from deforestation is considerably larger. The 11 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions (5.4 GtCO2eq/yr) from forest loss is net of forest regrowth. But gross emissions from forest loss are actually much higher; about twice as much carbon is released from forest loss as is sequestered due to regrowth.  In fact, UNEP’s Bridging the Emissions Gap report estimates that saving forests can help reduce about 22 report of global emissions between now and 2020—more than the entire global transport sector.

So the real question is, how can agriculture be managed to be not just climate-smart but forest-smart? 

In many regions, tropical forests are being cleared to produce four major commercial commodities: soy, palm oil, beef, and paper & pulp.  These commodities are produced by large multi-national companies and consumed in markets across the world. Production of these four commodities is estimated to be responsible for over 40 percent of all tropical deforestation. Voluntary public-private partnerships such as the Tropical Forest Alliance and industry networks like the Consumer Goods Forum are aiming to achieve zero net deforestation in tropical forest countries by 2020 by creating deforestation-free global supply chains for these products. Consumers can help by demanding deforestation-free food.

Improving agricultural productivity on existing land, expanding croplands into already degraded lands and intensifying pasture productivity can reduce the pressure on forests. As Jonathan Foley, Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, explains in a new article in National Geographic, “Trading tropical forest for farmland is one of the most destructive things we do to the environment, and it is rarely done to benefit the 850 million people in the world who are still hungry.”

Most of the land cleared for agriculture in the tropics does not contribute much to the world’s food security but is instead used to produce cattle, soybeans for livestock, timber, and palm oil. Avoiding further deforestation must be a top priority. 

Brazil has shown that this can be done.  Between 1970 and 2006, Brazil dramatically expanded agricultural output. The country managed to do so without expanding the area in production in its central grain producing region, while at the same time reducing deforestation by 80 percent from 2004 to 2013.  It achieved this success through a combination of market forces, policies, enforcement, and improved monitoring. The Brazil example shows that to increase food production while conserving forests, intensification must be coupled with effective forest protection measures. 

Figure 1. Deforestation in Brazilian Amazon (INPE); Brazil soy production (FAOSTAT); Brazil cattle production (FAOSTAT)

Creating incentives for tropical forest countries to reduce deforestation by paying for results – reduced forest clearing -- can also help.  Since 2005, a financing mechanism for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (called REDD+) has been under development under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC).  Early evidence from a few initial pay-for-performance REDD+ programs show that they have tremendous promise and have helped forest countries to mobilize the political will and commitment needed to enforce laws to curb deforestation and have provided incentives for tropical forest countries to undertake difficult institutional investments and policy reforms. 

A recent note by CGD President Nancy Birdsall and Jonah Busch shows how this has worked in Guyana.   Scaling up funding for these pay-for-performance programs can contribute to reducing greenhouse gases from forest clearing.  To this end, CGD has launched a Tropical Forests for Climate and Development Initiative to help mobilize substantial additional finance from high-income countries to conserve tropical forests as a means of reducing carbon emissions and thus slowing climate change. 

The bottom line?  For agriculture to be climate-smart it must first be forest-smart.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.