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Managing the nitrogen cycle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from crop production and biofuel expansion

Abstract

Public policies are promoting biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuel consumption in order to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, the mitigation benefit can be at least partially compromised by emissions occurring during feedstock production. One of the key sources of GHG emissions from biofuel feedstock production, as well as conventional crops, is soil nitrous oxide (N2O), which is largely driven by nitrogen (N) management. Our objective was to determine how much GHG emissions could be reduced by encouraging alternative N management practices through application of nitrification inhibitors and a cap on N fertilization. We used the US Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS2) as the basis for a case study to evaluate technical and economic drivers influencing the N management mitigation strategies. We estimated soil N2O emissions using the DayCent ecosystem model and applied the US Forest and Agricultural Sector Optimization Model with Greenhouse Gases (FASOMGHG) to project GHG emissions for the agricultural sector, as influenced by biofuel scenarios and N management options. Relative to the current RSF2 policy with no N management interventions, results show decreases in N2O emissions ranging from 3 to 4 % for the agricultural sector (5.5–6.5 million metric tonnes CO2 eq. year−1; 1 million metric tonnes is equivalent to a Teragram) in response to a cap that reduces N fertilizer application and even larger reductions with application of nitrification inhibitors, ranging from 9 to 10 % (15.5–16.6 million tonnes CO2 eq. year−1). The results demonstrate that climate and energy policies promoting biofuel production could consider options to manage the N cycle with alternative fertilization practices for the agricultural sector and likely enhance the mitigation of GHG emissions associated with biofuels.

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Acknowledgments

This research was funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency, Contract No. EP08C000106, with additional support from USDA-NIFA, Grant #2011-67003-30205. We thank Cindy Keough and Ram Gurung who performed the DayCent model simulations and developed the meta-models that were used in the FASOMGHG model analysis.

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Correspondence to Stephen M. Ogle.

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Ogle, S.M., McCarl, B.A., Baker, J. et al. Managing the nitrogen cycle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from crop production and biofuel expansion. Mitig Adapt Strateg Glob Change 21, 1197–1212 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11027-015-9645-0

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Keywords

  • Soil nitrous oxide
  • DayCent model
  • FASOMGHG model
  • Biofuel
  • Policy analysis
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Agricultural sector
  • Biofuel feedstock production
  • Crop production