Climate Change

The Climate, Food and Farming, Global Research Alliance Development (CLIFF-GRADS) Initiative

An interview with Ekaterina Bessonova from the CLIFF-GRADS initiative

Ekaterina Bessonova coordinates the CLIFF-GRADS network of fellows and alumni, as part of as part of the collaboration between the Global Research Alliance (GRA) and CGIAR's programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCFAS). She talks about the objectives of the CLIFF-GRADS fellowship programme, how it contributes to the Enhanced Transparency Framework of the Paris Agreement, and alumni success stories (see below).

> More information on the CLIFF-GRADS Fellowship



CLIFF-GRADS stands for Climate, Food and Farming, Global Research Alliance Development Scholarship, a joint initiative by the CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases (GRA).

It is a capacity-building initiative and provides grants to early-career scientists from low- and middle-income countries to undertake short term scientific training and research on topics related to measurement, modelling and mitigation of agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.


Ekaterina, tell us a little about the CLIFF-GRADS fellowship, the work of your team, and your role within the network.

I am one of the programme coordinators and along with my colleagues we act as the main contact point for the PhD students, run events for the Alumni to engage with one another and wider scientific community, as well as explore opportunities to increase the value of this fellowship and build partnerships with similar programmes. 

CLIFF-GRADS is more than just a grant programme. It facilitates early-career scientists at the top of their disciplines to have access and exposure to technical equipment, software and expertise they would not have had access to otherwise. This fellowship is also designed to facilitate personal growth of the awardees by weaving them into a global network, by building lasting scientific mentorship relationships, while providing opportunities for international cultural exchange. To date, there have been 124 awardees from 32 countries.

CLIFF-GRADS have a specific focus on capacity-building for youth and early-career professionals in working on the topic of agricultural GHG emissions. Could you tell us more about the underlying thought process, and the key challenges and capacity gaps that this initiative aims to address?

Efforts to mitigate climate change can only be sustained if young people are heard, listened to and involved in the process of developing solutions. It is crucial to understand that bringing down GHG emissions from agriculture is a technically demanding undertaking, which requires the development of national and international standards for measurement and verification, as well as complex coordination and collaboration during implementation. 

Therefore, it is crucial to increase the capacity of all countries in this field. We need to invest in young researchers now. CLIFF-GRADS is a way to provide financial support, expand  networks, and develop skills-sets young people need to deal with the social, economic and environmental challenges ahead.

You pointed at the impacts that initiatives such as CLIFF-GRADS could have on transparency-related capacities of countries, beyond the increased skills of the individual fellows. How would you describe the contributions of the CLIFF-GRADS to the institutional and systemic capacities of countries related to the enhanced transparency framework (ETF) under the Paris Agreement? 

On the organizational and institutional level, CLIFF-GRADS enables students to significantly expand their professional and academic research networks, providing contacts with their host institute as well as within the wider scientific community in their host country and within the extensive GRA and CCAFS networks of senior scientists and experts. 

At the systemic level, CLIFF-GRADS facilitates long term mentor and working relationships between research institutions in the Global South and North through continuous development and engagement with the alumni network. 

How do you engage with the CLIFF-GRADS fellows and alumni network during and after their assignments to ensure the capacities that are built will be effectively utilized and retained over time?

The CLIFF-GRADS programme places a strong emphasis on network building in addition to building scientific capability, both during and after their research visit. 

We provide support structures, such as the buddy system that pairs current and previous alumni; virtual and, eventually, in-person webinars and workshops; an online forum platform for all of the alumni where we share career opportunities, events and research; and we often include CLIFF-GRADS in wider GRA and CGIAR events to help raise their profiles. With these structures in place, the CLIFF-GRADS alumni effectively become part of the GRA network and can take part in the ongoing projects and partnerships alongside their more experienced peers.  

Do you keep track of alumni’s career paths and the impacts of the CLIFF-GRADS on their professional development and contributions? If so, could you highlight some of the success stories of young CLIFF-GRADS scholars who have pursued careers linked to the transparency arrangements under the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement?

We have a database of all the students who went through the CLIFF-GRADS programme and keep in touch with everyone via the online forum platform as well as on WhatsUp groups for a more informal exchange. Many of the CLIFF-GRADS alumni contribute to the activities linked to the enhanced transparency framework under the Paris Agreement. 

Here are some examples of what our alumni are doing:

Florencia Garcia from Argentina co-coordinates the recently established Low Carbon Livestock-Research Network (LCL-RN). A cluster of GRA, this network focuses on improving the quantification and estimation of GHG emissions and carbon capture in livestock systems in order to identify future mitigation options as well as to improve sector's inventories in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, France, Mexico, Peru, Spain and Uruguay. She also is a collaborator in a European project (MACSUR SciPol) that seeks to bring science and policy together to strategically design a response to climate change adaptation and mitigation challenges in the agri-food sector in Europe.

Sebastian Vangeli, also from Argentina, works at INTA Argentina (National Institute of Agricultural Technology) and Buenos Aires University. His PhD work represents one of the first experiences in GHG mitigation evaluation in croplands from Argentina. Now, he is working with the team who reports GHG emissions in the national inventory, shaping a higher-tier reporting on nitrogen (N2O).

Samuel Anuga from Ghana was nominated to the UNFCCC roster of mitigation experts by the focal person of his country and is currently supporting the preparation of the national inventory and national communication reports of Ghana. When requested by UNFCCC he also helps to analyze national inventory reports of other countries from the Global South and contributes to the review and technical analysis of matrices for livestock methane emissions estimation as a member of the Technical Advisory Group of the Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance partnership at the FAO.

Bowen Zhang works with the Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment in China, where he researches ways to decrease the uncertainties of regional nitrogen emission estimates and propose regional mitigation strategies from the perspective of soil types.

What would be a key lesson learned from the work of the CLIFF-GRADS for other capacity-building initiatives and networks?

Sustainability is about systems change and collaboration across different sectors, geographies and levels. Do not underestimate the importance of networks. They operate on a meta-level, fostering cooperation through sharing of information and ideas, as well as by creating opportunities that arise from international exchange.

Networks aren’t always straightforward and take time and effort to develop, but with a certain degree of momentum, networks have the ability to catalyze change by launching a chain reaction.

Investing in support structures is vital too, and this relates to the systemic change. One can have a great idea or ability, but it is very hard for it to take root and grow, without an enabling environment.

For example, having a dedicated contact can go a long way in helping students quickly manage challenges they face. Enabling the students to support one another, including through our buddy system, has proven beneficial too.

Our online forum facilitates ongoing contact and this can lead to lasting impacts rather than a one-time grant or award. Another example would be to support fellowship through challenges they may have on the way, like visa issues or a family emergency, instead of assuming the worst and pulling funding out. 

Increasing technical capacity in climate mitigation needs to be accompanied with additional learning opportunities on how research can contribute to policy at the right time in the right language or convert research findings into a social media-friendly easy-to-digest format. It can round out skillsets, increase agency and the capacity of early-career scientists to collaborate, ultimately enabling them to realize their potential to the fullest.

How can the FAO Transparency Team and other transparency initiatives support your work and add to its impact?

FAO provides facilitation and technical capacity support for country states. It could thus integrate with GRA networks and provide CLIFF-GRADS scientists with connections to their national agriculture inventory compilers so they can discuss what research would improve emission reporting and increase country  capacity to implement specific agriculture mitigation strategies that result in real emission reductions in agriculture. FAO experts could speak and be tutors at our upcoming webinar series and other capacity development activities in the future.