Africa’s population is rapidly growing, with its share of the global population projected to increase from 17% in 2020 to 39% by 2100 (ref. 8). The continent is already grappling with low agricultural productivity and food security challenges. Tremendous efforts are needed to increase food production; however, arable land continues to undergo widespread degradation due to issues such as nutrient mining, erosion, overgrazing and pollution. Climate change and more frequent weather extremes, such as floods and droughts, further degrade land and reduce agricultural productivity.
Some efforts to counteract low productivity, however, can increase greenhouse gas emissions and derail efforts to meet global climate targets. Poor water management, fertilizer application and residue burning in rice production are, for example, major sources of potent greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide9,10. To ensure that the United Nations sustainable development goals and the African Union’s Agenda 2063 for food and water security are realized at minimal environmental cost, science-based land management practices are needed to decouple agricultural productivity from greenhouse gas emissions.
The Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Uses (AFOLU) sector contributes the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in Africa11. Thus, developing large-scale agronomic, livestock and forest management practices that increase productivity and reduce emissions is key to achieving enhanced production and environmental sustainability. However, it is impossible to effectively manage greenhouse gas emissions if there is limited capacity to quantify them in Africa.
Improved data infrastructure and research are needed to quantify emissions associated with specific land management practices under different land uses. Similarly, land use mitigation strategies should be informed by existing and potential future land use changes and their impact on greenhouse gas emissions under different climate scenarios. However, past studies that examined land use changes at various temporal scales mainly used coarse resolution satellite imagery and suffered from limited availability or poor-quality of data, partly due to cost. Such challenges have resulted in limited knowledge of land management practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions while increasing agricultural productivity.
Improved greenhouse gas observation networks and in situ measurements12 will enable the development of country-specific emission factors (IPCC tier 2/3)13 and quantification and management of land use specific greenhouse emissions. It will reduce uncertainties in emissions inventory data on Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Uses14, which are currently estimated using emission factors extracted from default value databases (tier 1 methodologies).
Free earth observation data, such as those from the European Space Agency and United States Geological Surveys, are becoming increasingly available. Together with improvements in cloud-based computing infrastructure, this presents an opportunity to advance research into current and future land use and vegetation dynamics. Coupled with accurately quantified greenhouse gas emissions, this can support current and future land management practices that contribute to mitigation and adaptation objectives of countries.