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The carbon sequestration potential of farms in the African Sahel

By Kristi Foster


In Africa agricultural land covers more than double the area covered by forests, and that ratio is rising. This makes trees on agricultural land a promising tool for addressing climate change mitigation, through their ability to store carbon.

The projected growth in global carbon markets could see increased opportunities for farmers practicing agroforestry to be compensated for boosting carbon stocks on their land. Indeed, Terrestrial Carbon Projects (TCPs) involving agroforestry systems have the potential to achieve both mitigation and livelihood goals, by paying farmers for the carbon they sequester, while also providing co-benefits such as increased yields and improved food security.

But what potential exists for carbon sequestration in dryland agroforestry systems such as those found in the Sahel? Would carbon projects in such dry areas be economically viable?

According to new research, dryland agroforestry systems present a unique set of challenges – and potential solutions.

World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) climate change researchers Eike Luedeling and Henry Neufeldt focused their attention on the West African Sahel, where – through tree planting or encouraging natural regeneration – farmers can establish parklands not unlike natural savannah.

Their research, published in the journal Climatic Change, estimated that if Sahelian parklands covered their maximum range, they could sequester over 2 billion tonnes more carbon dioxide than treeless agricultural land. However, given that the region’s climatic conditions are likely to become decreasingly suitable for agroforests, the likelihood of such parklands actually sequestering these massive volumes of carbon in the future is uncertain.

By comparing a range of hypothetical Terrestrial Carbon Projects (TCPs) with varying combinations of landholding size, number of farms, carbon prices and payment options, Luedeling and Neufeldt also found that projects would require either high carbon prices or the involvement of a large number of farmers to be viable.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to the success of TCPs, they argue, is the lack of economic incentive for farmers, especially smallholders. Even in the most optimistic scenarios, farmers’ carbon revenue over a 25-year period fell well below the lowest average annual income. The authors see this to mean that TCPs that focused solely on carbon payments will not attract farmers’ participation in the Sahel.

Carbon aside, there is strong evidence that other factors are prompting the establishment of parklands, such as those achieved in Southern Niger through farmer-managed natural regeneration. Of note are the many benefits gained from incorporating trees on agricultural land, which include:

  • Greater farm productivity and improved food security,
  • Enhanced soil fertility and landscape health,
  • Improved nutrition through the consumption of fruits, and
  • Increased income through a diversity of marketable products, including fruit, timber, fuelwood and seeds.

These economic and ecological benefits buffer households against climate variability and weather extremes, and help families that are most vulnerable to climate change better adapt.

The authors conclude that in light of economic and climatic challenges, carbon payments cannot be seen as a stand-alone solution to climate change adaptation and mitigation, but they might well catalyse the process.

“The carbon component of projects could potentially serve as a catalyst that allows farmers to invest in climate-smart practices such as agroforestry, particularly where up-front payments can be realized,” say Luedeling and Neufeldt.

With or without carbon payments, farmers stand to benefit greatly from the expansion of parkland agroforestry in the Sahel, where the likelihood of increasing aridity makes adaptation strategies vital.

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Read the full article: Carbon sequestration potential of parkland agroforestry in the Sahel

Related stories:

Five ways agroforestry helps farmers adapt to climate change

How is REDD+ doing in Africa?

Window on the future: fruit and nut growers can adapt to climate change

Re-greening the Sahel

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