Co-benefits and greenhouse gas abatement

May 2nd, 2019

We are exploring ways of integrating co-benefits into the broader conversation around why the transition to carbon farming practices within the land sector is important.

What are co-benefits?

Co-benefits are added positive benefits associated with greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction and improved carbon management in farms, and are well documented in the agricultural literature, both in agronomic terms and more broadly from social, environmental, economic and policy perspectives[1],[2]. Examples include improved soil health and productivity, improved water holding capacity and management of erosion and salinity, as well as biodiversity and conservation outcomes. Whilst each of these are positive outcomes, it is important to recognise that dis-benefits associated with on-farm GHG abatement projects can also arise, such as the potential for decreased catchment runoff with extensive reforestation. Understanding the complete range of co-benefits and dis-benefits is a new area of scholarship and is of particular interest to emerging and often transdisciplinary fields of research, such as agroecology.

The need to make co-benefits part of the conversation

Thus far, reliance on a carbon price alone has been insufficient to drive broad scale adoption of carbon farming projects in the agricultural sector in Australia, due in part to high transaction costs, high opportunity costs associated with land use change, and a carbon price that is insufficient to compensate1,[3]. The notable exceptions are projects that involve avoided deforestation, the management of regrowth, and savanna burning[4]. These activities are concentrated in the semi-arid areas of NSW and Queensland, and Northern Australia, with their economic viability resting on relatively large spatial scales of application, on lands with low or zero opportunity costs.

Given the relatively low rate of uptake of GHG abatement and mitigation opportunities in Australia’s more productive agricultural areas and given the broad extent of possible co-benefits that could potentially increase the attractiveness of such activities to many landholders (Table 1), the lack of a significant co-benefit narrative around carbon farming is surprising. Recent research1 suggests that re-framing opportunities with increased attention to co-benefits and broader economic incentives, in addition to potential financial opportunities, could re-invigorate how carbon farming is perceived and adopted in the Australian agricultural sector.

Our approach to integrating co-benefits

To this end, we are exploring ways of integrating co-benefits into the broader conversation around why the transition to carbon farming practices within the land sector is important and needed. We conducted a literature review, and in conjunction with our research findings, we’ve developed an initial set of five broad categories for grouping co-benefits for agricultural stakeholders and communities (Table 1). These categories (Farm productivity, Soil health, Biodiversity & conservation, Water quality and quantity, and Socio-economic) reflect a range of values and motivations that are relevant to how land is managed. We feel that such a classification can be used to assist landholders and others to better evaluate which abatement methods have the most economic value as well as the best outcomes across a range of non-GHG values.

A graph

Classification of 11 broad land-based activities for achieving greenhouse gas abatement outcomes with respect to five broad classes of environmental, social and economic co-benefits

A greater consideration of co-benefits is useful for both sides of the market: supply (provide more motivation to produce carbon and participate in the market) and demand (respond to desire for higher quality or more highly valued credits). If carbon trading programmes included the broader economic narrative of co-benefits within carbon sequestration projects, it could revitalise the conversation around farm productivity and sustainability. Achieving such a ‘transformation’ towards valuing a greater range of benefits – social, environmental and economic – is a key issue for agriculture and communities around the world to address. Recognition could assist communities in achieving more general sustainability, improved ‘social license’ credentials, and ongoing public support of agricultural production.

Our simple message is that co-benefits:

  • should be part of the offering for why the land sector should transition to carbon farming practices
  • should be recognised as part of incentive structures as they resonate with landholders’ values and motivations
  • should be part of the broader conversation around agricultural production and GHG management in order to promote carbon abatement activity across Australia’s agricultural sector.

[1] Fleming, A. et al. 2019. Land Use Policy.

[2] Bustamante, M. et al. 2014. Global Change Biology. 20: 3270-3290.

[3] Sanderson & Reeson. 2019. ECOS 252.


For more information, contact Dr Peter Fitch on