Tibetan Plateau

The site

The Tibetan Plateau is the world’s largest and topographically most complex high elevation plateau, with an average elevation over 4000 masl, and average annual temperatures of less than 2 C. The Plateau covers the provinces of Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai, as well as parts of Gansu, northwestern Sichuan and northwestern Yunnan.

The unique geographical conditions of the Plateau make it home to a rich and rare biodiversity of global significance. The Plateau’s grasslands are essential to the survival of a large number of rare and endangered wildlife. Grassland vegetation is also essential to the maintenance of the region’s critical hydrological services. Grasslands with higher vegetation cover regulate the storage and run-off of water, abating soil erosion and flash floods. Soils of grasslands on the Plateau contain about 23% of China’s total soil carbon. Grassland-dependent livestock raising is the primary source of cash and non-cash income for the majority of the Plateau’s 5 million inhabitants.

The issues

The Plateau’s grasslands play important roles in regulating environmental processes through the effects of vegetation cover on surface energy reflection, wind drag, evaporation and soil moisture, and provide significant carbon storage, water regulation and soil conservation and biodiversity services. 

Degradation of the Plateau’s grasslands has in recent years been a major concern for national policy makers. China has initiated several mega-projects aiming to conserve the Plateau’s ecology. A grassland payments for ecosystem services program is under design, with the first pilots initiated in 2009 in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

While there is a growing body of evidence on the impacts of grazing on various ecosystem services, other aspects related to the development of environmental services’ schemes are much less well understood. There has been some experience with schemes in China’s grasslands but lessons have not been systematically collated nor analyzed. Economic analysis of grazing systems in the region is also very sparse, which presents difficulties for estimating the impacts of different rewards’ options on household welfare. Insufficient evidence when designing an environmental services rewards’ scheme would hinder its effectiveness in improving land management and delivering enhanced services.

Environmental services and the people involved

Environmental services

Multiple ecosystem services, for example, water, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, sandstorm abatement, cultural and amenity values

People who provide the environmental services

Grassland users

People who benefit from the environmental services

Grassland users, downstream populations

People who act as intermediaries between the providers and the beneficiaries

National and local governments

Environmental services provided by grasslands can be summarized as aesthetic beauty, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, clean water and food production.  As a key link in the ecosystem, grasslands are also the source of food for animal husbandry on the Plateau, providing income and protein for farmers. Converting degraded grasslands into productive ones through a reward for environmental services scheme would not only recover degraded ecosystem functions but also increase local households’ income. Equally importantly, co-investments in infrastructure and technology adoption to increase livestock productivity have been found to be very important in supporting households to improve grassland management while also enhancing their livelihoods.   

The rewards 

Some past grassland programs focused on paying compensation for prohibiting grazing on degraded areas. But these schemes did not systematically address how to enhance livestock production and may have displaced grazing pressure to areas outside the prohibited area. The first pilot of a rewards scheme for improved grassland management began in 2009 in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The scheme rewards households for adopting sustainable stocking rates on both degraded and non-degraded lands. RUPES helped a policy research institute of the Ministry of Agriculture document the region’s pilot scheme, draw on lessons from other schemes and make recommendations for developing a voluntary, conditional and effective scheme for China’s grasslands.


In 2011, with support from the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Agriculture began to implement a rewards’ scheme throughout China’s grassland areas. In a departure from previous grassland rewards’ schemes, many design elements in the new scheme were decided at the provincial level, providing greater flexibility to implementing agencies to design incentives that fitted with local conditions. The scheme also allows provinces to add locally relevant technical support to promote improvements in livestock management that complement grassland management.

RUPES has been building on emerging markets for greenhouse gas emission reductions in China to design a grassland carbon finance project that will support implementation of the Government’s grassland programs by strengthening targeting, planning and monitoring. The initiation of seven provincial pilot emissions trading schemes in 2012 indicates high potential support for development of complementary approaches between government- and market-funded rewards for environmental services’ schemes.

Site partners

  • World Agroforestry Centre China and East Asia Node
  • Research Center for Rural Economy (RCRE) of the Ministry of Agriculture
  • International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)

RUPES partnered with ICIMOD to support RCRE to undertake surveys of the emerging pilot rewards’ schemes in Tibet Autonomous Region and to deliver policy messages to the relevant agencies of the Ministry of Agriculture. This work also informed ICIMOD’s wider efforts to support schemes in rangelands in other parts of the Himalayan region.

Contact for more information 

Dr Andreas Wilkes, a.wilkes@cgiar.org