Assessing the economic and mitigation benefits of climate-smart agriculture and its implications for political economy: A case study in Southern Africa

Giacomo Branca*, Aslihan Arslan, Adriana Paolantonio, Uwe Grewer, Andrea Cattaneo, Romina Cavatassi, Leslie Lipper, Jonathan Hillier, Sylvia Vetter

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


Climate change poses a serious risk to the economic growth of sub-Saharan Africa. Sustainable enhancement of resilience and mitigation capacity of small farm households is a major political economy goal. This paper has the objective to assess the on-farm economic and mitigation benefits of climate-smart agriculture production and their cost-effectiveness to be used as a prioritization criterion for policy incentives. An interdisciplinary model which integrates elements of economics and ecological science at farm-scale is developed and applied using a unique dataset for Malawi and Zambia built through household surveys. Results show that switching from conventional to climate-smart farming enhances economic returns more significantly in semi-dry areas than in sub-humid ones. However, high up-front costs hinder technology adoption. Negative abatement costs for most smart farming options indicate synergies between livelihood enhancement and mitigation. Land management based on minimum tillage, crop residues incorporation, use of cover crops, and inclusion of legumes has relatively higher economic returns. Agroforestry provides lower economic returns but the highest emission abatement potential. Payments for mitigation benefits could be a management strategy to incentivize cleaner agriculture production if tailored appropriately. These results strengthen the case for public support to climate-smart agriculture scaling-up within policy and planning strategies.

Original languageEnglish
Article number125161
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Cleaner Production
Early online date30 Nov 2020
Publication statusPublished - 20 Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors acknowledge support from the project: ‘Climate-smart agriculture in Malawi, Zambia and Vietnam’, co-funded by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and European Commission (EC) for the 2012–15 period.

The authors wish to thank: the Handling Editor and the four anonymous reviewers for their thorough reading of the manuscript and the useful comments that have helped to significantly improve the work; and Dr. Chiara Perelli (Tuscia University, Italy) for her precious help with the infographics.


  • Cost-effective mitigation
  • Ecological-economic model
  • Marginal abatement cost
  • Smallholder farming
  • Sustainable agriculture
  • SOIL


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