Agroforestry – an act to fight climate change?

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Written by: Agnes Bondesson, communication officer at SLU Global, Swedish University of Agricultural Sceinces

Agroforestry - pines and cotton
Agroforestry with pine and cotton
Photo: National Agroforestry Center/Wikimedia commons

22nd of April is every year dedicated to our beloved earth, so called Earth day. SLU has research projects in a wide range of areas and today it is time to give attention to one of them, agroforestry. This is a method where trees are planted among crops and animals and it is seen as a sustainable nature-based solution which can contribute to several of UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Agroforestry provides various ecosystem services which are beneficial both locally and globally in the fight against climate change. This way of farming can limit the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by binding carbon and nitrogen in vegetation and soil. At the same time, the cultivation system contributes to positive effects in the local area, as trees shade, bind soil and increase resistance to pests, drought and floods, as well as providing access to firewood and a variety of nutritious food. It creates a favourable microclimate around the trees for a variety of flora and fauna.

SLU has several research projects running about agroforestry, many in collaboration with other universities and organisations around the world. SLU Global asked Ulrik Ilstedt, researcher at SLU, a few quick questions about agroforestry.

1. How does SLU work with research in agroforestry?

There are many people at SLU who work with different aspects of agroforestry in low-income countries, both from economic, social and environmental aspects. I myself have worked mostly with how agroforestry can contribute to carbon binding and how it also affects the water balance. Especially the water balance has been a much debated issue where hydrologists have previously thought that all trees – in forest or agricultural land – have a negative impact on water supply as trees use more water than grass and crops.

For tree planting organisations and the general public it has been difficult to realise that forests are bad for water supply. Many people think of the forest as a sponge that sucks in water. Instead, we have developed a new theory in which we believe that indeed the trees’ soil-improving ability can contribute to more water entering the soil and groundwater but up to a certain limit. If the trees grow too fast and too dense, their water consumption will take over and there will be water loss compared to pure agricultural land.

2. What are the benefits in a global sustainability perspective?

You can get a productive and sustainable cultivation system that can at the same time maintain many environmental values, such as biodiversity, water regulation and carbon storage. Because the trees contribute to soil improvement, farmers who are poor can cope with less or no commercial fertilizer. There are also advantages to being able to get different alternative products from the same fields and to spread risks.

3. What projects are SLU currently running?

One of the larger collaborative projects led by one of my colleagues, Gert Nyberg, where several researchers from SLU work together with other universities, is about studying different aspects of an area in Kenya. The organisation Vi-agroforestry previously used the area to influence how the pasture was organised. Through a better organisation of the pasture with fences, grass and trees could come back into the area and the pasture became more productive. This collaboration project is now being developed in other areas with both Swedish and international partners.

I myself would be particularly interested in continuing with the water issue. We now know that it is possible to grow trees and at the same time increase the water supply. Can we improve the groundwater supply further through maintenance with for example what kind of trees we use, if we prune them and how the trees are spread.

4. If you mention some positive effects with agroforestry, what would it be?

Agroforestry can contribute to many of the Sustainable Development Goals, for example to combat poverty and hunger (# 1 and # 2), better access to water (# 6), to help us combat and manage climate change better (# 13) and to contribute to higher biodiversity (#15). Agroforestry can also contribute to give women more time and opportunity to develop and take control of resources.

More information:
News page at SLU website
Debate article at Aktuell Hållbarhet (Swedish)

SLU student’s impressions from COP24

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Two students from SLU went to the 24th Conference of the parties (COP24) in Katowice, Poland. Read their blog posts with impressions and experiences from their stay.

A student at the COP24 – Why I would go again

By: Charlotte Ponzelar, MSc student in Environmental Communication and Management

Overwhelming, massive, colourful. These three words can barely describe all the impressions from my visit at the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) in Katowice, Poland. Since three years I wanted to be part of it and this year I am thrilled that I got my chance. My interest in environmental communication and education for sustainable development guided my journey through the exhibition halls in these four days of my stay. While decision-makers negotiated about detailed guidelines in the ‘rule book‘ for the implementation of the ParisAgreement from 2015, I found myself joining the ECOS (Education, Communication, Outreach Stakeholders) community in their daily meetings, exchanging experiences with environmental communication experts and I listened to different lectures and solution-oriented project presentations. 

The mission of Article 6 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is to improve Climate Change Education and was the topic of one of the round tables, that I had joined. The concept of education does not only provide knowledge about risks and challenges. It is a concept that is embedded in every subject to enable an understanding that everything we do has an impact and is affected by climate change. Climate Change Education can change the discourse to see the opportunities of finding solutions and adopt them for a better future by perceiving its critical components in interdisciplinary, local-action based collaboration. Still, participants of the discussion shared several experienced challenges in implementation. Among other things, they pointed out missing tools for educators and the lack of funding for their education. Climate Change Education provides an understanding that can enhance climate action. Nevertheless, knowing does not necessarily mean doing. It’s a controversial topic because there is a gap between knowledge and action, as in we know what would be right to do but we don’t do it. Which way of communication can lead to the behavioural change that is needed? Some of my course literature argues that connecting the human beings actions to Climate Change will cause the feeling of guilt and resistance within the individual. Sarah-Mae Nelson, a member of the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI), is convinced that  „We can’t be part of the solution if we don’t see ourselves as part of the cause!“

Through my stay in Katowice, I had the chance to experience the power of many nations coming together to work towards a better future as a community. I strengthened my knowledge about the challenges we are facing and saw once more that the connection of Education and Communication is imperative to reach the societal and behavioural change that is needed.

I want to say thank you to SLU and SWEDESD (Sweden’s Academy for Sustainable Development), who enabled this rewarding opportunity and trusted me and my will to report from the COP24 and to get the best out of it.

My COP24 experience

By: Wiebke Homes, MSc student Environmental Sciences (EnvEuro), SLU

This October, in the lead up to this years’ COP24 (Conference of the Parties) in Katowice, Poland, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) published a special report on 1.5°C. The report outlines the impacts of climate change if global warming reaches 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Currently, the world has already warmed approximately 1°C but under current trajectories, and the nationally determined contributions which every country needs to develop under the Paris Agreement, it is estimated that we will reach a shocking warming of 3°C by the end of the century. The differences between 1.5°C and the targeted 2°C are already immense and it is hard to imagine what would happen if global warming exceeds 2°C. This special report showed the urgency of climate action and the need for stronger commitment.

The report made clear that at a 2°C warming, more than 99% of all coral reefs will disappear. Since I am very passionate about our oceans and the marine environment, this fact broke my heart. It was not the only time during the week at COP24 that it got very emotional for me. To get a better understanding I attended many scientific side-events about climate change and oceans, also in the pavilions. The British Pavilion showcased a way to grow corals five times faster than in nature by making use of the energy produced from waves. What was surprising to me as well, were the many partnerships that are already in place. The Commonwealth Blue Charter is one example and the exchange between Norway and the Pacific is another, as the melting of the glacier in the North has a direct effect on Pacific Island States which are threatened by sea-level rise. To withstand the challenges of climate change (sea-level rise as only being one of them), ambition, ambition, ambition, ambition and ambition are UN chief António Guterres five priorities, as stated in his speech about the climate crisis last week. The goal of COP24 was to adopt the rulebook for the implementation of the Paris Agreement and to give more support to developing countries from the developed countries.

Alongside thes scientific events, I was also working for the UNFCCC Secretariat. I am currently doing an internship within the Adaptation team in Bonn. Since I am responsible for supporting the National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) for the PacificIslands States, I met with the Ministers and/or other government officials from different countries in that region, for example Tuvalu, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa and Fiji. Before COP24, I had already examined the progress of these countries with regard to their NAPs and needed to verify my collected data and fill in gaps. This was a great opportunity to meet climate leaders in person, build up trust between institutions and look behind the scenes of how climate politics works. It felt a bit weird and unreal to be surrounded by so many high-level politicians and heads of states and to walk alongside them in the corridors. Fun fact: It seemed like that the Russian and Saudi-Arabian lead negotiators were best friends, I only always saw them in a pair. Another cool fact: on Friday, high school students from Katowice followed Swedish 15-year old Greta Thunberg and did not attend school that day, striking for the climate under the motto of ’12 years left’. I once more noticed how important the voice of youth – future generation – is.

Sleep-deprived but very, very relieved; that is how I felt on Saturday night. After several sleepless nights, hard work on the draft texts, consultations with different groups such as the Least Developed Countries Expert Group (LEG), the Group 77 + China or the High Ambition Coalition, closed meetings from the Green Climate Fund (GCF)and revisions upon revisions, the closing plenary finally started Saturday night after being postponed seven times with a 17.5 hours delay. Thanks to India, who in the spirit of pursuit accepted the rulebook last minute, the COP24 President Michał Kurtyka was able to say: “Hearing no objections, it is so decided.” Cheers and applause followed. This once again showed what multilateralism is capable of: 196 states, all with different intentions, found consensus on one single text (with the exception of Article 6 on carbon markets, which has been postponed to next years’ COP25 in Chile). Although the adopted rulebook is far from perfect, it is a step towards a low-carbon future. If we are to achieve reductions in emissions in half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050, which would keep global warming well below 2°C, much more needs to be done.

It was an honor for me to go to COP24, as a representative of both SLU and the UNFCCC. I was able to connect to other students from around the world, to meet and have a chat with renowned scientists (e.g. Johan Rockström), and to speak up for climate action, pulling me out of my comfort zones several times. Going to COP was highly rewarding for me, especially because I got to be involved in background work to make the Paris Agreement actually work. As David Attenborough said in the first week of the COP, “every small bit matters”. Just by being in the middle of high climate politics was already fascinating enough.I have learnt so much during COP24 and I am very thankful for SLU for giving me this special opportunity. It was definitely the cherry on the cake of my Master’s degree and I hope to be able to go to next years’ COP25 as well – this time as an ambassador for our oceans!