As the U.N. climate talks are underway in Paris, the global spotlight is on how business can offer solutions for addressing climate change. With this in mind, the fertilizer industry is strongly committed to continue reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.
Fertilizer related GHG emissions can be substantially mitigated as a result of enhancing crop intensity through the use of fertilizers, but it is also important to consider this goal in the context of other development goals, especially food and nutrition security.
With a growing world population and ever increasing global demand for food, it is more important than ever to ensure that farmers around the world can maximize the crop yields they can harvest on existing farmland while also minimizing emissions.
Fertilizer will play a critical role in achieving these interconnected goals. First, it can help maintain the integrity of the world’s forests. Forests are essential for capturing carbon, therefore limiting deforestation and its associated GHG emissions helps mitigate against future climate change. Fertilizers allow for increased productivity on existing arable land, reducing the need to convert forests to farmland. Second, it can help build up soil organic matter. Fertilizers help increase the carbon sequestration potential of agricultural soils by increasing organic matter present in soils. This organic matter generates higher nutrient uptake, which stimulates plant growth, and, in turn, contributes to the absorption of more CO2 from the atmosphere.
In fact, a 2010 Stanford study estimated that increases in crop productivity had saved about one billion of hectares of land from being converted to agriculture between 1961 and 2005. The study then calculated that this led to carbon emission savings of 317 to 590 Gt CO2-eq, leaving the authors to conclude that “although GHG emissions from the production and use of fertilizers have increased with agricultural intensification, those emissions are far outstripped by the emissions that would have been generated in converting additional forest and grassland to farmland.”
Considering that global agricultural output would be reduced by as much as 50% without the use of mineral fertilizers, the 2.5% of total GHG emissions related to fertilizers seems rather negligible—especially when compared to the 21% of emissions associated directly with agriculture (such as from rice cultivation and livestock) and land use changes due to deforestation.
Working Together to Limit Agricultural GHG Emissions
The fertilizer industry works with scientists, farmers, international organizations and governments to develop and adopt innovative agricultural practices that contribute to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
As the majority of fertilizers’ total emissions, or 1.5% of total GHG emissions, derive from product applications, the biggest scope for ongoing emissions reductions are to be found at the farm level.
A large number of programs are developed worldwide to implement soil- and crop-specific nutrient management practices with the objective to optimize product efficacy and minimize nutrient losses to the environment:
- Fertilizer best management practices consist in applying the right fertilizer source at the right rate, right time, and right place. This initiative is called the 4Rs.
- Research and training on soil analysis allow for the development of locally adapted protocols on application rates, for instance in relation to the moisture content, pH or temperature of soils.
- Precision agriculture offers a range of monitoring technologies that help farmers to apply precisely the right amount and the right type of fertilizer.
- Integrated plant nutrient management promotes a better integration of locally available organic nutrient sources such as animal manure and compost with mineral fertilizers.
As far as production-related emissions are concerned, fertilizer manufacturers across the globe have been taking substantial measures to reduce their carbon footprint and continually strive to improve their energy efficiency, as evidenced in the International Fertilizer Industry Association’s benchmark results on energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, consumption of energy by ammonia plants has decreased by more than 15% over the past decade.
Overall, fertilizer production has become increasingly efficient over the last several decades due to the adoption of best available technologies. The International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA) has affirmed this view, putting fertilizers into the category of products whose use can lead to emissions reductions in excess of the amount of GHG emitted during their production.
Meeting Food and Climate Goals Together
Making the most of existing farmland is essential to meet the world’s food security needs and to protect forests from being destroyed, burned and converted to agricultural land.
Intensification does not automatically stand for an increase of fertilizers, but instead for well-targeted use. For instance, the technique of “microdosing” – which dispenses the equivalent of a full bottle cap of fertilizer very precisely into each seed hole during planting – is helping smallholder farmers to increase their harvest with minimal amounts of fertilizer. Similarly, the broad development and marketing of “specialty fertilizers”, such as slow- and controlled-release fertilizers, help minimize the amount of nitrogen that is lost during application. The ultimate aim of correct fertilization is to increase fertilizer uptake by the plant while reducing losses to the environment.
Crop yield intensification has proven to lead to measurable carbon dioxide reductions. However, intensification must be driven by sustainability objectives. In addition to its own work, the industry engages in multiple partnerships to disseminate knowledge of responsible, balanced and site-specific fertilizer use.