Rural landscape in Hoa Binh Province, Vietnam.
Rural landscape in Hoa Binh Province, Vietnam.

Weighing Approaches to Reduce Land-Use Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Increase Carbon Storage in Ecosystems

By Tim Holland

Planners at USAID and in host country governments need to choose how to invest funds to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from land. Should they focus on establishing or strengthening protected areas in the east? Restoring mangroves in the north? Improving timber harvesting practices in the south? In each country, there are many choices.

The Productive Landscapes (ProLand) project team has been bringing together data, past project experiences, and insight from local experts to help decision-makers focused at a national level prioritize among options for reducing GHG emissions from land. We call the approach Sustainable Landscapes Opportunities Analyses (SLOAs). As of today, the ProLand team has completed draft or final SLOAs in Vietnam, Philippines, Guatemala, Papua New Guinea, and Ecuador, and a regional-scale SLOA for West Africa.

Human land use causes about 23 percent of total global GHG emissions. This includes emissions from activities related to agriculture, forestry, and the conversion or degradation of ecosystems like wetlands, forests, and grasslands. Such activities include forest clearing, cropland management, and livestock production. However, human land use emissions do not include emissions from transportation or energy production that are closely related to land management activities, such as transportation of lumber or production of nitrogen fertilizer.

Approaches to reducing these emissions range from expansion of agroforestry that increases carbon storage on farmlands, to forest protection that reduces emissions from deforestation, to improved practices for raising animals that reduce emissions from livestock. 


Climate mitigation table

In most countries, the top five or so opportunities usually represent the great majority of emissions reduction potential. Choosing from these options presents a daunting challenge.

How can donors like USAID and their government partners have a clear view of the range of possibilities and their likely impact when choosing approaches?

The analysis for each country starts with identifying potential opportunities for climate change mitigation. We rely on a pair of recent studies that broke new ground by bringing together more than 300 research articles in order to quantify the cost-effective emission reductions that 20 natural climate solutions pathways could deliver. We also refer to national climate change strategy documents to ensure that our analysis captures all of the most promising opportunities in each country. Once we have identified potential approaches, we assess them on four counts:

  1. Magnitude: How many tons of emissions could an activity reduce, or by how many tons could it increase carbon storage?
  2. Cost: How much is an activity likely to cost in terms of dollars per ton?
  3. Feasibility: How likely is an activity to successfully achieve its goals once we take into account institutional factors, cultural preferences, economic dynamics, and local capacities?
  4. Co-benefits: What impact will an activity have on non-climate goals such as biodiversity conservation, human health, or livelihood improvement?

What we’ve learned is that anyone using these analyses to prioritize among land-based climate mitigation approaches needs to have clarity about additional criteria for making these choices. Trying to achieve the greatest reduction in emissions for the least cost will lead to a different selection of approaches than would trying to create the greatest co-benefits to biodiversity or to local livelihoods.

Our approach is to present evaluations transparently and in detail so that decision-makers can develop programs that best reflect the shared priorities of all the partners involved. A simplified example of how we share those evaluations is below, with colors showing advantages and drawbacks of different approaches.


Example prioritization matrix assessing climate mitigation opportunities.
Example prioritization matrix assessing climate mitigation opportunities.

The ProLand team also works with other practitioners so that we can all continue learning and improving these assessments. We recently hosted a virtual workshop to share lessons with other groups who are developing SLOAs: Colorado State University, the University of Vermont, the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service, Conservation International, and The Nature Conservancy. Working with these groups and other partners helps us continuously improve SLOAs so that they can better support the design of landscape-wide solutions that limit climate change while improving the health and well-being of local populations.

SLOAs we have completed to date and future reports when completed are available here.

Emissions, Low Emission Development, Sustainable Land Management, Land Use, Mitigation, Sustainable Landscapes
Africa, Asia, Global, Latin America & Caribbean

Tim Holland

Tim Holland is an Associate in Environment and Natural Resources at Tetra Tech who works on issues related to climate mitigation, forest conservation, land and resource rights, and land use change. He has research and project implementation experience in the Amazon, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific

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