IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change

8.8 Co-benefits and trade-offs of mitigation options

Many of the measures aimed at reducing GHG emissions have other impacts on the productivity and environmental integrity of agricultural ecosystems, mostly positive (Table 8.12). These measures are often adopted mainly for reasons other than GHG mitigation (see Section 8.7.3). Agro-ecosystems are inherently complex and very few practices yield purely win-win outcomes; most involve some trade-offs (DeFries et al., 2004; Viner et al., 2006) above certain levels or intensities of implementation. Specific examples of co-benefits and trade-offs among agricultural GHG mitigation measures include:

  • Practices that maintain or increase crop productivity can improve global or regional food security (Lal, 2004a, b; Follett et al., 2005). This co-benefit may become more important as global food demands increase in coming decades (Sanchez and Swaminathan, 2005; Rosegrant and Cline, 2003; FAO, 2003; Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). Building reserves of soil carbon often also increases the potential productivity of these soils. Furthermore, many of the measures that promote carbon sequestration also prevent degradation by avoiding erosion and improving soil structure. Consequently, many carbon conserving practices sustain or enhance future fertility, productivity and resilience of soil resources (Lal, 2004a; Cerri et al., 2004; Freibauer et al., 2004; Paustian et al., 2004; Kurkalova et al., 2004; Díaz-Zorita et al., 2002). In some instances, where productivity is enhanced through increased inputs, there may be risks of soil depletion through mechanisms such as acidification or salinization (Barak et al., 1997; Díez et al., 2004; Connor, 2004).
  • A key potential trade-off is between the production of bio-energy crops and food security. To the extent that bio-energy production uses crop residues, excess agricultural products or surplus land and water, there will be little resultant loss of food production. But above this point, proportional losses of food production will be strongly negative. Food insecurity is determined more by inequity of access to food (at all scales) than by absolute food production insufficiencies, so the impact of this trade-off depends among other things on the economic distributional effects of bio-energy production.
  • Fresh water is a dwindling resource in many parts of the world (Rosegrant and Cline, 2003; Rockström, 2003). Agricultural practices for mitigation of GHGs can have both negative and positive effects on water conservation, and on water quality. Where measures promote water use efficiency (e.g., reduced tillage), they provide potential benefits. But in some cases, the practices could intensify water use, thereby reducing stream flow or groundwater reserves (Unkovich, 2003; Dias de Oliveira et al., 2005). For instance, high-productivity, evergreen, deep-rooted bio-energy plantations generally have a higher water use than the land cover they replace (Berndes, 2002, Jackson et al., 2005). Some practices may affect water quality through enhanced leaching of pesticides and nutrients (Freibauer et al., 2004; Machado and Silva, 2001).
  • If bio-energy plantations are appropriately located, designed, and managed, they may reduce nutrient leaching and soil erosion and generate additional environmental services such as soil carbon accumulation, improved soil fertility; removal of cadmium and other heavy metals from soils or wastes. They may also increase nutrient recirculation, aid in the treatment of nutrient-rich wastewater and sludge; and provide habitats for biodiversity in the agricultural landscape (Berndes and Börjesson, 2002; Berndes et al. 2004; Börjesson and Berndes, 2006).
  • Changes to land use and agricultural management can affect biodiversity, both positively and negatively (e.g., Xiang et al., 2006; Feng et al., 2006). For example, intensification of agriculture and large-scale production of biomass energy crops will lead to loss of biodiversity where they occur in biodiversity-rich landscapes (European Environment Agency, 2006). But perennial crops often used for energy production can favour biodiversity, if they displace annual crops or degraded areas (Berndes and Börjesson, 2002).
  • Agricultural mitigation practices may influence non-agricultural ecosystems. For example, practices that diminish productivity in existing cropland (e.g., set-aside lands) or divert products to alternate uses (e.g., bio-energy crops) may induce conversion of forests to cropland elsewhere. Conversely, increasing productivity on existing croplands may ‘spare’ some forest or grasslands (West and Marland, 2003; Balmford et al., 2005; Mooney et al., 2005). The net effect of such trade-offs on biodiversity and other ecosystem services has not yet been fully quantified (Huston and Marland, 2003; Green et al., 2005).
  • Agro-ecosystems have become increasingly dependent on input of reactive nitrogen, much of it added as manufactured fertilizers (Galloway et al., 2003; Galloway, 2004). Practices that reduce N2O emission often improve the efficiency of N use from these and other sources (e.g., manures), thereby also reducing GHG emissions from fertilizer manufacture and avoiding deleterious effects on water and air quality from N pollutants (Oenema et al., 2005; Dalal et al., 2003; Olesen et al., 2006; Paustian et al., 2004). Suppressing losses of N as N2O might in some cases increase the risk of losing that N via leaching. Curtailing supplemental N use without a corresponding increase in N-use efficiency will restrict yields, thereby hampering food security.
  • Implementation of agricultural GHG mitigation measures may allow expanded use of fossil fuels, and may have some negative effects through emissions of sulphur, mercury and other pollutants (Elbakidze and McCarl, 2007).

The co-benefits and trade-offs of a practice may vary from place to place because of differences in climate, soil, or the way the practice is adopted. In producing bio-energy, for example, if the feedstock is crop residue, that may reduce soil quality by depleting soil organic matter. Conversely, if the feedstock is a densely rooted perennial crop that may replenish organic matter and thereby improve soil quality (Paustian et al., 2004).These few examples, and the general trends described in Table 8.12, demonstrate that GHG mitigation practices on farm lands exert complex, interactive effects on the environment, sometimes far from the site at which they are imposed. The merits of a given practice, therefore, cannot be judged solely on effectiveness of GHG mitigation.

Table 8.12: Summary of possible co-benefits and trade-offs of mitigation options in agriculture.

Measure Examples Food security (productivity) Water quality Water conservation  Soil quality Air quality Bio-diversity, wildlife habitat Energy conservation Conservation of other biomes Aesthetic/ amenity value 
Cropland management Agronomy  +/- +/- +/- +/- +/- 
Nutrient management -/+         
Tillage/residue management +/-       
Water management (irrigation, drainage) +/- +/- +/-       
Rice management +/-   +/-       
Agro-forestry +/- +/-         
Set-aside, land-use change 
Grazing land management/ pasture improvement Grazing intensity +/-           
Increased productivity (e.g., fertilization) +/-               
Nutrient management +/-   +/- 
Fire management     +/-     +/- 
Species introduction (including legumes)             
Management of organic soils Avoid drainage of/restore wetlands       
Restoration of degraded lands Erosion control, organic amendments, nutrient amendments       
Livestock management Improved feeding practices     +/-         
Specific agents and dietary additives                 
Longer term structural and management changes and animal breeding                 
Manure/biosolid management Improved storage and handling  +/-   +/-         
Anaerobic digestion               
More efficient use as nutrient source         
Bioenergy Energy crops, solid, liquid, biogas, residues           
 References (see footnotes) a b c d e f g h i 

Note:+ denotes a positive effect (benefit); - denotes a negative effect (trade-off). The co-benefits and trade-offs vary among regions. Economic costs and benefits, often key driving variables, are considered in Section 8.4.3


a Foley et al., 2005; Lal, 2001a, 2004a;

b Mosier, 2002; Freibauer et al., 2004; Paustian et al., 2004; Cerri et al.., 2004

c Lal, 2002, 2004b; Dias de Oliveira et al., 2005; Rockström, 2003.

d Lal, 2001b, Janzen, 2005; Cassman et al., 2003; Cerri et al., 2004; Wander and Nissen, 2004

e Mosier, 2001; 2002; Paustian et al.., 2004

f Foley et al.., 2005; Dias de Oliveira et al., 2005; Freibauer et al., 2004; Falloon et al., 2004; Huston and Marland, 2003; Totten et al., 2003

g Lal et al., 2003; West and Marland, 2003

h Balmford et al., 2005; Trewavas, 2002; Green et al., 2005; West and Marland, 2003

i Freibauer et al., 2004