Social safety net programs that include the restoration of degraded land and agroecosystems at scale are expected to provide increased food nutrition and security, while also contributing to climate change mitigation as a co-benefit.

Land degradation is a global problem that adversely affects the livelihoods and food security of billions of people. Among the world’s largest food security programs are public works programs focused on restoring degraded land. Such land restoration is expected—over the long term—to contribute to increased food security.

A recently published article by Cornell University and CCAFS researchers, co-authored by Dawit Solomon, CCAFS East Africa Regional Program Leader, looks at the potential and possible pitfalls of the climate mitigation co-benefits of such programs, focusing on Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP).

Ethiopia's Productive Safety Net Program

Key facts:

  • PSNP provides food and financial support to beneficiaries in exchange for public works.
  • More than 8 million farming communities benefit from it and it covers over 600,000 ha of land.
  • It implements participatory integrated watershed management and degraded ecosystem rehabilitation programs at both the landscape and smallholder farm levels to restore and build the productive capacity and ecosystem services of the land.

Ethiopia has been deemed a climate “hotspot”—a place where a changing climate could pose grave threats to agricultural production, food security, and human well-being. These threats are exacerbated by the rampant land degradation in the country. Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP) aims to increase the rural smallholder communities’ long-term resilience to food shortages. Ethiopia launched the PSNP in 2005 to respond to the needs of food-insecure households while creating productive investments that promote rural economic growth and environmental rehabilitation.

A fundamental strategy adopted by the PSNP to achieve these objectives is linking the transfer of food and cash to vulnerable households with the provision of labor for public works. These public works focus on building social infrastructures such as roads, schools, and clinics, and also—the main topic of the article—on rehabilitation of degraded land and agro-ecosystems to enhance societal and ecosystem resilience.

The authors suggest that, although the intent of Ethiopia’s PSNP was to improve resilience and livelihoods, an unintended co-benefit is climate change mitigation from reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and increased landscape carbon stocks.

According to the study, which was carried out in 24 woredas (districts), the total reduction in net GHG emissions from PSNP’s land management strategy at the national scale is estimated at 3.4 million Mg CO2e y-1, approximately 1.5% of the emissions reductions in Ethiopia’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) for the Paris Agreement.

The article explores some of the opportunities and constraints for scaling up this impact. For example:

  • Improving management and implementation of individual projects can bring the average carbon benefits closer to the higher levels that were observed in the better performing survey sites.
  • Further scaling up will require a transition away from the sub-watershed projects that presently characterize PSNP, towards jurisdictional approaches that incentivize the sustainable management of landscapes over entire woredas, zones or regional states.
  • PSNP is only one of the large-scale programs conducting sustainable land management in Ethiopia. The potential for scaling up of public works to provide a more substantial contribution towards Ethiopia’s NDC should, therefore, take a coordinated and integrated approach that encompasses all of the relevant national programs.

The World Bank's PSNP Climate Smart Initiative in Ethiopia was the basis for the study. Key international policy insights from CCAFS' assessment of the initiative include:

  • Food security programs can contribute to climate change mitigation by creating a vehicle for investment in land and ecosystem restoration.
  • Maximizing mitigation, while enhancing but not compromising food security, requires that climate projections, and mitigation and adaptation responses should be mainstreamed into planning and implementation of food security programs at all levels.
  • Cross-cutting oversight is required to integrate land restoration, climate policy, food security and disaster risk management into a coherent policy framework.
  • Land-based productive safety net and food security programs have synergies with climate change mitigation. These efforts are not mutually exclusive.
  • The study shows that the unintended climate change mitigation co-benefits of this food-security and safety net investment is clearly supporting Ethiopia’s Climate Resilient Green Economic policy and programs.

The lessons learned from the Ethiopian experience described in the article have the potential to inform safety net programs in developing countries worldwide, creating an opportunity for social protection to also provide a mechanism to support international and national responses to climate change. Additional research on the social and economic trade-offs and co-benefits between land restoration works and food security will be required to fully realize the potential of such programs to contribute to stabilizing the Earth’s climate within safe limits.

In order to build resilience in agricultural systems in Ethiopia and to provide evidence and data on climate-smart agriculture (CSA) technologies and practices, CCAFS has established 3 Climate-Smart Villages (CSVs): Borana pastoral site in Southern Region, Lemo district site in the Southern Highlands and Basona-Worana district site in the central highlands. The CSVs enable researchers, local partners, farmers’ groups and policymakers to test portfolios of CSA technologies and practices with the aim of scaling up successful innovations.

Download the article: Woolf D, Solomon D, Lehmann J. 2018. Land restoration in food security programmes: synergies with climate change mitigation. Climate Policy.

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The PSNP is implemented by the Government of Ethiopia with support from the following development partners: UK Department for International Development, United States Agency for International Development, Royal Netherlands Embassy, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Canadian International Development Agency, Irish Aid, European Commission, World Food Program and The World Bank.

Dawit Solomon is the Regional Program Leader at CCAFS East Africa.

Dominic Woolf is a Research Associate at SIPS - Soil and Crop Sciences Section, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), at Cornell University.

Lili Szilagyi is the Communications consultant for CCAFS East Africa.

Catherine Mungai is the Partnerships and Policy Specialist for CCAFS East Africa.