Climate Smart Agriculture Sourcebook

Climate-smart livestock production

Production and Resources

Range management for mitigation and adaptation, in the Three Rivers region of Northern China


The restoration of degraded grasslands through sustainable grazing management (SGM) practices, including: reductions in grazing pressure on overstocked sites; the sowing of improved pastures; and better pasture management, can lock more carbon in soils and biomass, increase the water-holding capacity of the soil and enhance grassland biodiversity. More widespread adoption of SGM practices is currently hindered, in part, by the high costs individual producers face in accessing carbon markets.

The Three Rivers Sustainable Grazing Project is a pilot project in the Qinghai province of China that addresses these challenges. In the project, which covers a total of 22 615 hectares of lightly to severely degraded grazing land, yak- and sheep-herding households will select a combination of management options related to grazing intensity, grass cultivation and animal husbandry. The project’s goal is to restore degraded grazing land, and thereby sequester soil carbon, and at the same time increase productivity, build resilience and improve livelihoods in smallholder herder communities. The average annual mitigation potential in the first 10 years of the project were an estimated 63 000 tonnes of CO2 eqv. per year.

Key lessons, constraints and selection criteria

1. Technical mitigation and adaptation potential
The primary selection criteria for this project was its high carbon sequestration potential, which was linked to the prevalence of heavily degraded grazing land (38 percent of the project area), and the availability of simple and cost-effective restoration measures. For instance, the average annual sequestration potential per hectare over the entire project is estimated to be more than 3 tonnes of CO2 eqv., compared with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) global estimates of 0.11 to 0.81 CO2 eqv. for grasslands (Smith et al., 2007). In addition, by improving soil moisture and nutrient retention in soils, grassland restoration plays an important role in building resilience to climate change.

2. Productivity and economic returns
Assessments revealed that restoration of degraded grazing lands would also significantly enhance the productive potential of the project site. Economic returns to herders will be enhanced by including a package of complementary measures, such as the introduction of improved feeding, winter housing, post-farm processing and marketing activities. The project’s capacity to deliver net economic returns is crucial, as it greatly increases the likelihood of voluntary herder enrolment, and improves the synergy between climate change mitigation and rural development objectives.

3. Carbon crediting methodology and applicability
The project activities are able to enhance the long-term productivity and profitability of the farming system. Nevertheless, during the first years of the project, carbon finance is critical to help cover the investment costs associated with grass planting, fencing and animal housing. A key constraint to accessing carbon market finance is the absence of carbon accounting methodology that is both affordable, but also sufficiently accurate for investors. To address this constraint, FAO has developed a grassland carbon accounting methodology that is currently being validated under the Verified Carbon Standard. Instead of relying solely on direct measurement, which is often prohibitively costly, this methodology uses carefully calibrated biogeochemical models in combination with the monitoring of management activities to estimate soil carbon pool changes. This important innovation significantly reduces the costs associated with measurement and verification and greatly facilitates access to carbon markets. While developed as part of the Three Rivers project, the grassland carbon accounting methodology will be applicable to sustainable grazing projects throughout the world.

4. Institutional constraints
In addition to the barriers related to biophysical and economic measurement and verification, institutional constraints also need to be considered. The project’s work in this area takes into consideration institutions for monitoring and enforcement, as well as institutions for marketing livestock products, which is needed to make the SGM practices a profitable option for herders. A lack of enforcement of laws for the adoption of sustainable stocking levels is common throughout China’s main grassland areas. It is important for the project to establish community-based monitoring mechanisms and build capacities to implement and monitor sustainable development in the longer-term.

Table B2.2
Summary of climate-smart indicator rankings


Ranking (-5 to +5)

Food security






Adaptation and resilience


Climate change mitigation


Water use and retention




Source: Smith et al., 2007