Cows look into a camera in front of verdant jungle backdrop.
Demand is increasing for strong MRV, which gives national governments tools for tracking their progress in reducing GHG emissions. Through improved MRV practices, governments can more completely track their mitigation efforts in priority sectors such as agriculture and livestock.

Gathering Data from Trees and Cows

By Christine Chumbler

As part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, member countries must submit national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions inventories, estimating how much carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases they are producing each year. More than 180 countries have submitted their intended contributions to climate change mitigation, and these inventories will be the main tool to measure their progress. But how can a developing country, with limited infrastructure and many priorities competing for scarce resources, compile this sort of data? Why is it in their interest to try?

Todd Rosenstock, senior scientist at World Agroforestry, explains that measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) is how countries track the progress of efforts to reduce GHG emissions. In the case of developing countries, donors often make support to climate change programs conditional on measurable results. “People want to know that investments are producing results,” Rosenstock says. “And then you also need good data so you can adaptively manage programs.” Similarly, this data can help countries identify priorities for GHG mitigation, including those that dovetail with other development goals, such as increased agricultural production or economic growth.

MRV is important in all sectors related to climate impacts, including agriculture, one of the largest sources of GHG emissions. That sector can also be among the most challenging for collecting good data. This leaves big gaps between countries’ ambitions and their abilities. “Forty percent of developing countries have identified agroforestry for either climate change mitigation or adaptation or both—seventy percent of the countries in Africa,” says Rosenstock. Likewise, most countries in Latin America have identified livestock as a priority for mitigation measures.


Farm workers tend a pepper garden.
Strengthening MRV for livestock and agroforestry can be seen in countries like Colombia, which is a regional leader in collecting data on agroforestry emissions.

MRV in the livestock sub-sector has a number of technical challenges. Countries want to reduce emissions related to livestock but generally by increasing productivity per head, not by reducing numbers of livestock.. At the same time, few developing countries have ready access to any data beyond numbers of livestock. “Most of what I’ve been working on recently is how can you move from having a relatively simple national inventory in the livestock sector to having a more advanced inventory—one that can reflect the effects of changing productivity or changing management practices,” says Andreas Wilkes, associate expert with UNIQUE Forestry and Land Use.

Agroforestry has these sorts of technical challenges too, as well as challenges that are more institutional. Often, government ministries will shuffle responsibility for agroforestry among themselves, unclear whether the responsibility falls to Ministries of Forestry/Environment or to Ministries of Agriculture. “Agroforestry sits between mandates,” explains Rosenstock. “Because it’s everywhere, it’s also nowhere, so you need clear champions within government.”

In spite of challenges like these, successful examples of MRV in agroforestry and livestock management are emerging. The RUMINANT model, for example, allows scientists to estimate emissions per cow, taking into account different food sources and the age and health of the animal. Estimates generated by this model have been used as a part of Colombia’s emissions inventory instead of laborious data collected locale by locale. “It has a lot of use in allowing people to estimate numbers when there isn’t very rich empirical data,” says Wilkes.

The hope is that compelling governments to look more closely at their GHG emissions levels will have benefits beyond reduction in emissions. In the livestock sub-sector in Kenya, for example, helping farmers increase the productivity from their dairy herds, which are most often micro-operations, has obvious economic benefits. “Almost anything you do to improve dairy management is going to increase the productivity of the animals, and per unit of milk that gets produced, it’s going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” says Wilkes. “So in that case, it’s more about how to leverage the greenhouse gas benefits to support investment in dairy development.” He mentions that improvements can be simple, even things like planting trees so cows can have shade in the heat of the day, reducing their physical stress and increasing tree cover at the same time.

Collecting MRV data can be daunting for any country, regardless of economic means, but Wilkes stresses that the most important thing is to start with what you have.

Wilkes describes his recent work helping develop the GHG inventory for the Kenyan dairy industry. “They were quite surprised at how much information they did have that could be used. I think the key thing for them was that once they realized you don’t have to be perfect at the beginning—you just use what you have, start out, and improve over time—that was a real encouragement.”

For more information:

Strategic Objective
Biodiversity, Climate Change, Forestry, Land Use

Christine Chumbler

Christine Chumbler is a communications professional with more than 20 years experience in writing, editing, and publications design. She has expertise in every stage of publication production, from concept and writing to editing, design, and printing. In the mid-1990s, she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi. This experience led to a career using her writing and editorial skills with international development and foreign policy organizations, many of which worked to directly support USAID’s efforts. She has worked in a freelance capacity full-time since May 2016. Chumbler has a Master’s in journalism from the University of Michigan and a Bachelor’s in environmental studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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