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It’s Time to Make Agriculture ‘Climate-Smart’

Juergen Voegele's picture

 Tran Thi Hoa/World Bank Group

For those plugged into the climate change conversation, land use and “climate-smart agriculture” (CSA) are hot topics, especially in the lead up to September’s UN Summit on Climate Change.

There is tremendous urgency in moving this agenda forward. We are now beyond discussing whether we need sustainable intensification. To enhance food security in the face of climate change, we will need agriculture systems that are more productive, use inputs more efficiently, and are more resilient to a wide and growing range of risks. This will mean changing the way land, soil, water, and other inputs are managed. But because agriculture varies from place to place, and climate change will impact each location differently, climate-smart agriculture needs to respond to local conditions. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach to agriculture, but rather a framework to be applied and adapted – a paradigm shift in thinking and action.

On the occasion of the release of the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the Mitigation of Climate Change last week, I had an opportunity to hear from some of the leading experts and policymakers and to zoom in on one of CSA's three goals, along with increasing productivity and building resilience: meeting global food needs with lower emissions.

Unfortunately, global agriculture systems have a long way to go before they can be considered sustainable by any reasonable standard. And we are certainly far away from being a sector that has a reduced or low footprint: The way we manage our agricultural landscapes globally produces a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture poses a bigger emissions problem than transport and other sectors that are traditionally viewed as the big emitters.

This is not sustainable. We need to find ways to increase our production and productivity across the landscape worldwide. We need to be more resilient. We need to help farmers adapt. And we need to reduce agriculture’s footprint. Most importantly, we need to get moving. While other sectors have been innovating to find solutions, agriculture has not. We are now approximately 20 years behind the curve compared to sectors like energy.

The good news is that a host of preeminent agriculture experts, including those that we had the honor of hosting last Wednesday,  are now largely aligned on the primary sources of agricultural emissions (livestock, rice production, fertilizer use etc.), as well as the key action areas such as increasing the emission efficiency of livestock production (less emissions per liter of milk, for example), reducing emissions from croplands, conserving existing carbon stocks, and looking for ways to suck carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it in soils and trees. Here, Chuck Rice of Kansas State University and a lead IPCC author talked about some of those options.

We must transition from reflecting on the vast impacts our food systems has on emissions that exacerbate climate change to seizing agriculture’s potential to reduce that impact and adapt to a changing climate. This is the only way to meet the food security challenge sustainably.

We urgently need to invest in agricultural research that looks at how we can structure our food production systems in a way that delivers increased productivity, enhanced resilience, and reduced emissions. At the same time, we already know enough to scale up CSA on the ground, right away.

At the World Bank, we are taking this challenge very seriously. We are working with countries, farmer organizations, the private sector, NGO/CSOs, academia, and others, including our friends at the CCAFS, the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, to bring together an Alliance on CSA. We have set up an internal task force to look for ways we can transform agriculture to respond to the new reality of climate change.

We know what we need to do; let's get on with it.

Juergen Voegele on the release of the IPCC Working Group III Report


Critical points that need addressing now. The IDB and Global Harvest Initiative just launched a report,, that focuses on some of these very issues in the Latin American and Caribbean region, and counts with the expertise of over 30 organizations to provide a solid set of recommendations for increasing agricultural productivity in a sustainable manner. This is a global issue, requiring local action.

Submitted by Friederike on

Power issues missing

Dear Juergen, while I'm happy to observe positive developments regarding 'climate smart agriculture' on the international agenda, I'm worried to what extent issues beyond productivity gains are considered. In particular, the debate seems to fall short on notions such as distributive and procedural justice, thus fair distribution of and access to agricultural produce. To my mind, local-level improvements towards 'climate smart' agriculture can only be effective if market- and policy-rooted structural factors along the agricultural value chain are tackled at the same time. Please have a look at our recent publication:
Best regards, F. Mikulcak

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