Agriculture’s Role in Greenhouse Gas Mitigation

This Pew Center report is the fourth in our series examining key sectors, technologies, and policy options to construct the “10-50 Solution” to climate change. The idea is that we need to tackle climate change over the next fifty years, one decade at a time. This report is also a companion paper to Agriculture and Forest Lands: U.S. Carbon Policy Strategies, being published simultaneously.

Our reports on electricity, buildings, and transportation described the options available now and in the future for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from those sectors. Agriculture may be less important than those other sectors in terms of its overall contribution to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but it has an important role to play within a strategy to address climate change. Agriculture is important not only because of the potential to reduce its own emissions, but because of its potential to reduce net emissions from other sectors. Agriculture can take carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere and store it as carbon in plants and soils. Agriculture can also produce energy from biomass that can displace fossil fuels, the major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Looking at options available now and in the future, this report yields the following insights for agriculture’s potential role in greenhouse gas mitigation:

  • If farmers widely adopt the best management techniques to store carbon, and undertake cost-effective reductions in nitrous oxide and methane, aggregate U.S. greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 5 to 14 percent.
  • With technological advances, biofuels could displace a significant fraction of fossil fuels and thereby reduce current U.S. GHG emissions by 9 to 24 percent. Using biomass to produce transportation fuels could also significantly reduce our reliance on imported petroleum.
  • Further research is needed to bring down the costs of biofuels and, particularly if agriculture is to participate in a GHG cap-and-trade system, to better assess the impacts of practice changes.
  • The level of reductions achieved will strongly depend on the policies adopted. Policies are needed to make it profitable for farmers to adopt climate-friendly practices, and to support needed research.

The authors and Pew Center would like to thank John Bennett, Henry Janzen, Marie Walsh, John Martin, and David Zilberman for their review of and advice on a previous draft of this report.