Climate Smart Agriculture Sourcebook

Introducing Climate-Smart Agriculture


Climate-smart agriculture

A2-2.1  What is climate-smart agriculture and why is it needed?

Climate-smart agriculture is an approach for transforming and reorienting agricultural production systems and food value chains so that they support sustainable development and can ensure food security under climate change. As noted in the overview to this module, climate-smart agriculture has three main objectives: sustainably increase agricultural productivity and incomes; adapt and build resilience to climate change and reduce and/or remove greenhouse gas emissions, where possible. This does not imply that every practice applied in every location should produce 'triple wins' that deliver positive results for each of these three objectives. Rather the climate-smart agriculture approach seeks to reduce trade-offs and promote synergies by taking these objectives into consideration when agricultural producers, policy makers and researchers make decisions at the local, subnational, national and global levels about short- and long-term strategies to address climate change.

Climate-smart agriculture provides the means to help stakeholders at all levels identify agricultural strategies suitable to their local conditions. It is in line with the FAO vision for sustainable food and agriculture and supports the Organization's goal to make crop and livestock systems, forestry, and fisheries and aquaculture more productive and more sustainable.

Box A1.1 Genesis of the climate-smart agriculture concept

The FAO approach to sustainable food and agriculture recognizes that countries will pursue multiple objectives across the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainability. Every country will need to balance the trade-offs between different objectives and between short-term and long-term needs. The major components of climate-smart agriculture were developed in response to debates and controversies related to climate change and agricultural policy for sustainable development in the framework of UNFCCC.

Although the concept of climate-smart agriculture is relatively new, it has already evolved since it was introduced at the 2010 Hague Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change (FAO, 2010). The concept emerged at a time when, agriculture’s key role in food security was not clearly articulated in the global climate change policy arena, and the splitting of adaptation and mitigation in two separate negotiation streams limited the capacity to build synergies between these two actions. The first articulation of the concept was presented in the 2009 FAO report, Food Security and Agricultural Mitigation in Developing Countries: Options for Capturing Synergies, which was launched at the Barcelona Climate Change workshop. The initial articulations of the concept argued that the agricultural sectors are key to climate change response, not only because of their high vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, but also because they are a main contributor of greenhouse gases. It also argued that the sustainable transformation of the agricultural sector is key to achieving food security, and thus it is essential to frame climate change responses within this priority (Lipper and Zilberman, 2017). 

After the Hague conference, two parallel global processes were established; one related to policy and the other to science, which led to the establishment of the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture (GACSA). 

Climate-smart agriculture is not a set of practices that can be universally applied, but rather an approach that involves different elements that are embedded in specific contexts and tailored to meet local needs. Climate-smart agriculture builds on sustainable agriculture approaches, using principles of ecosystem and sustainable land and water management and landscape analysis, and assessments of the use of resources and energy in agricultural production systems and food systems. This is particularly important in developing countries, where agricultural growth is generally a top priority. Often, but not always, practices with strong adaptation and food security benefits can also lead to reduced greenhouse gas emissions or increased carbon sequestration. However, implementing these synergistic practices may entail higher costs, particularly for up-front financing. Therefore, programmes promoting the climate-smart agriculture approach need to include capacity development for local stakeholders to help them tap into sources of funding for agricultural and climate-related investment. Innovative financing mechanisms that link and blend climate and agricultural finance from the public and private sector are critical for the implementation of climate-smart agriculture. These innovations will only be realized if climate-smart agriculture is integrated into policy-making processes at all levels, and there is cross-sectoral coordination in policy design and implementation. The scaling up of context-specific climate-smart agriculture practices will require effective institutional and governance mechanisms to facilitate the dissemination of information and ensure broad participation.

A2-2.2 How is climate-smart agriculture implemented?

Climate-smart agriculture relates to actions in fields, pastures, forests, and oceans and freshwater ecosystems. It involves the assessment and application of technologies and practices, the creation of a supportive policy and institutional framework and the formulation of investment strategies. Climate-smart agricultural systems include different elements such as: 

  • the management of land, crops, livestock, aquaculture and capture fisheries to balance near-term food security and livelihoods needs with priorities for adaptation and mitigation; 
  • ecosystem and landscape management to conserve ecosystem services that are important for food security, agricultural development, adaptation and mitigation; 
  • services for farmers and land managers that can enable them to better manage the risks and impacts of climate change and undertake mitigation actions; and 
  • changes in the wider food system including demand-side measures and value chain interventions that enhance the benefits of climate-smart agriculture.

Designing a national climate-smart agriculture approach requires the coordination of activities of a wide range of stakeholders. This clearly includes the private sector, as it will be individual agricultural producers, both large-scale and small-scale, who will need to adopt climate-smart agriculture practices, as will other enterprises involved in the food value chain. The financial sector and possibly governments will need to be involved in the provision of credit for investment in activities that contribute to climate-smart agriculture objectives. Governments at all levels will need to establish an enabling policy and regulatory environment for the private sector to stimulate the scaling up of climate-smart agriculture. Research institutions and rural agricultural extension services will need to be included in the policy-making process, and generate and disseminate of information on climate variability and its economic and social implications. Climate-smart agriculture activities can range over a very broad spectrum, depending on the relative importance of its three objectives – food security, adaptation, and mitigation – in a given country. 

The methodology FAO has developed with its partner countries for implementing the climate-smart-agriculture approach nationally includes five action points:

1. Expand the evidence base 

Given the importance of growth in the agricultural sector for food security and the major impacts climate change is already having on agricultural growth strategies, the first step in implementing a climate-smart agriculture approach is to develop a robust evidence base. The purpose of this step is to formulate strategies for increasing productivity and agricultural incomes, and estimate their potential mitigation co-benefits. An important part of building the climate-smart agriculture evidence base involves determining the current and projected effects of climate change on specific agricultural production systems and producers in the near and medium term, and pinpointing key vulnerabilities in the agricultural sectors and for food security. Another major component in developing the evidence base is the identification and evaluation of potential climate-smart options for adapting to the expected impacts of climate change while at the same time supporting sustainable agricultural development. These activities need to use economic and social criteria that are in line with national food security and development objectives. In making the initial assessment, consideration needs to be given to the potential synergies and trade-offs for the proposed climate-smart agriculture interventions relative to the baseline activities. The final piece in the construction of a robust evidence base is determining the institutional and financing needs that must be met to implement the priority actions. This includes estimating the costs and barriers to the adoption of different practices, identifying issues related to the sustainability of production systems and preparing the required policy and institutional responses. Both analytical work and stakeholder consultations are needed to build the evidence base. The process also needs to recognize various points of view and take into account uncertainty, as there are still many unknowns about the impacts climate change will have on agriculture, particularly in local settings.

2. Support enabling policy frameworks

The existence of a robust evidence base is necessary but not sufficient for the implementation of effective climate-smart agriculture and food security policies. Enabling policy frameworks (e.g. national agricultural development plans, provisional and local extensions to national plans) are essential for ensuring this evidence base is put to use to support climate-smart agriculture. The development of supportive policies, plans and investments, and coordination in the policy-making processes and institutions responsible for agriculture, climate change, food security and land use are required to create this enabling policy framework. There may be a need to modify existing policy measures to exploit the synergies and minimize the trade-offs between the three objectives of climate-smart agriculture. However, some trade-offs may have to be accepted and possibly compensated for when achieving synergies is not possible. Before designing new climate-smart agriculture policies, policy makers should systematically assess the intended and unintended effects of a wide range of current international and national agricultural and non-agricultural agreements and policies on climate-smart agriculture objectives, and take into account other national development priorities. New policies to stimulate the adoption of climate-smart agriculture systems should focus on filling policy gaps and contribute to a country-driven approach to capacity development in the short and long term. Understanding the socio-economic and gender-differentiated barriers and incentive mechanisms that determine the adoption of climate-smart agriculture practices is also critical for designing and implementing supportive policies. 

3. Strengthening national and local institutions

Enabling institutions (e.g. financial institutions, land tenure regimes, institutions regulating customary law, community-based organizations, insurance schemes, information and extension services) are essential for harnessing the evidence base to empower, enable and motivate farmers to adopt climate-smart agriculture practices. Cross-sectoral dialogues, which form an important part of the climate-smart agriculture methodology, enhance coordination between institutions dealing with agricultural, climate change, social protection, food security and other issues at the local, national and international levels. These dialogues can take the form of dedicated workshops to consider emerging policies, or presentations and discussions among standing committees or public sector bodies involved in policy formation. In some cases, efforts also need to be made to build the capacities of national policy makers to participate in international policy fora on climate change and agriculture, and reinforce their engagement with local government authorities.

4. Enhancing financing options

Innovative financing mechanisms that improve the links between climate finance and agricultural investments from the public and private sectors are central to implementing climate-smart agriculture. New climate financing mechanisms, such as the Green Climate Fund, may be a way of spurring sustainable agricultural development. Strong Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) and National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) and National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs), are key national policy instruments for creating links to national and international sources of finance. National sector budgets and official development assistance will continue to be the main sources of funding. Integrating climate change issues into sector planning and budgeting is a prerequisite for successfully addressing the impacts of climate change. Linking climate finance to agricultural investments requires the capacity to measure, report and verify that interventions that have received funding are indeed generating adaptation and mitigation benefits. An evidence base for climate-smart agriculture can provide much of the information needed for making this link.

5. Implementing practices in the field 

Farmers, pastoralists, foresters and fisherfolk are the primary custodians of knowledge about their environment, agricultural ecosystems, crops, livestock, forests, fish and local climatic patterns. Efforts to adapt a climate-smart agriculture approach to a specific setting must take into account local producers’ knowledge, requirements and priorities. Local project managers and institutions can engage with agricultural producers to identify suitable climate-smart agriculture options that can be easily adopted and implemented. An example of this is the work done through Farmer Field Schools in the United Republic of Tanzania.

Figure A1.1.  Schematic representation of the climate-smart agriculture approach