Agriculture as a Nature-Based solution for climate action

Exploring carbon farming’s emissions reduction, removal and climate mitigation potential

The term ‘Nature-Based Solutions’ has been around for a while but only recently it has started to gain traction as a means to generate carbon credits. The term was coined for the first time in 2008 by the World Bank and shortly after adopted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN): 

‘Nature-based Solutions are actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural and modified ecosystems in ways that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, to provide both human well-being and biodiversity benefits. They are underpinned by benefits that flow from healthy ecosystems and target major challenges like climate change, disaster risk reduction, food and water security, health and are critical to economic development’ 

The kind of activities that go under the term nature-based solutions (Nbs) are varied, they can ‘enhance existing natural or man-made infrastructure and spur long-term economic, social and environmental benefits’, meaning actions protecting or restoring natural environments such as forests, mangroves peatlands or improving already managed land resources, such as farmed land. 

Nbs can be categorised into these three sections: ecosystem conservation, ecosystem restoration and better land management of farmed land. More in detail, ecosystem conservation through the protection of natural environments such as the Amazon forest, will help maintain this tropical rainforest as a healthy carbon sink that sequesters large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

Ecosystem restoration focuses on rehabilitating already degraded ecosystems in order to increase their capacity to sequester carbon, this can be achieved by large reforestation initiatives, rewetting wetlands in order to recreate the natural environments that had been lost.

Improved land management implies a transition to smart agricultural practices, which are often referred to as carbon farming,  conservation or regenerative agriculture.

The opportunity: carbon farming practises

Carbon farming is increasingly being talked about as a way to decarbonise the food system starting from the ground up. By applying carbon smart farming practices, we are presented with a great opportunity to aid the need for increased food production and also address the increasing pressure of climate change on our societies and ecosystems.

Around 50% of our habitable land is used for agriculture. Farmed land is already being managed and, therefore, already has systems in place that can support the roll out of the necessary changes to scale regenerative agriculture and strengthen the permanence of its environmental benefits. 

The adoption of carbon farming can secure carbon emissions reduction by adopting a number of practices. For example, tillage management, reducing or eliminating tillage will reduce the disturbance of the soil where the carbon is stored, keeping it in the soil. Soil covered by crop residues and/or live cover crops can also reduce soil losses through wind and water erosion.

It’s also possible to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, turning the ground into a ‘carbon sink’ by increasing the soil’s capacity to sequester carbon.

There are multiple carbon practices that can be adopted to achieve this: cover crops and crop rotation, crop diversification, nitrogen management and pasture land management, to name the most common. 

As already mentioned, planting cover crops between harvests and practising crop rotation  improves soil fertility, biodiversity and prevents soil erosion. Optimising nitrogen management ensures that the correct amount of fertiliser is applied,  increasing fertiliser use efficiency and the crops’ yield as well as minimising  the run off of excess fertiliser, polluting the surrounding environment or underground water resources. 
Pasture land management, using high yielding grass species, applying fertiliser and managing the intensity of grazing could increase pastureland’s biomass yield and its potential of sequestering carbon to the soil. Manure produced by cattle, if properly managed, can also improve soil health and biodiversity. 

Climate action and co-benefits of carbon farming

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculates that “up to 20% of annual GHG emissions are generated from agriculture, forestry, and land-use change.” 

It’s clear that the mitigation potential through land based solutions is substantial and can only increase as regenerative practices become more scalable. At the moment, a recent study from the IUCN states that nature-based solutions across all land-based ecosystems could result in removals of at least 5GtCO2e per year, going up to 11.7GtCO2e. By 2050, this could be between 10-18GtCO2e per year’.

On top of reducing CO2 emissions these practices can produce multiple co-benefits that support the surrounding environment and those dependent on it. Carbon farming can improve the overall soil health of farmed land, improving the quality and yield. This will in turn produce positive social outcomes, increasing the income of farmers, their families and the communities that depend on land for sustenance and employment.

Furthermore, cover crops could also increase lands’ resilience to extreme weather events such as droughts and floods. When fields are covered with live crops, the vegetation prevents the water from running off,  scraping away the fertile upper layer of soil; healthy soils and plant cover also help retain water in the ground that will be a critical factor for the flora’s survival during dry periods. 

And finally, planting cover crops and diversifying crops also supports biodiversity. For example, planting grasslands at the edge of a field or practising agroforestry will provide a ‘ habitat for species and supports connectivity’.

The need for change in our food system

Reducing carbon emissions and sequestering carbon in the agricultural sector are a  necessity, as we need to feed our growing population, without increasing emissions and protecting the natural habitats that are already significantly degraded or at risk of being degraded.

Today there are 7.9 billion people living in the world. By 2050 the world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion people, and to meet this growing demand it’s calculated that agriculture should increase production by 60/70 % of production

As of now, around a quarter of the population works in agriculture and the communities around them depend on their produce as well as all of the rest of the world depends on the production of food:

Every day, agriculture produces an average of 23.7 million tons of food, provides livelihoods for 2.5 billion people, and is the largest source of income and jobs for poor, rural households. In developing countries, agriculture accounts for 29% of GDP and 65% of jobs (Convention on Biological Diversity).

It’s clear that our communities are inextricably linked to agriculture, either directly or via indirect channels. Furthermore, in order to be able to feed our future population and at the same time aid the already high numbers of malnourished communities around the world, we need to rethink our food production system.

There is no ‘one cut’ solution and different ecosystems present different characteristics, opportunities and challenges that need to be taken into account while looking to balance our anthropogenic development with nature’s equilibrium. However, one thing is certain, a shift in how we make use of our land is inevitable, as the world’s resources are finite and stress on its ecosystems is already sending shocks  across the globe, in the form of increased occurrence of extreme weather events. 

Actions to aid our warming planet have to be many folds and inter-sectoral. Through knowledge sharing, technological advancements and climate smart practices, agriculture can continue to be a source of nutrients and also become a powerful asset in addressing the climate challenge that we are globally facing today.