Harnessing Science to Inform Agricultural Policy, Carbon Markets

This is the tenth installment in a 12-part series highlighting the environmental policy impacts of the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability over its first decade.

In 2008, Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability had just published a report weighing challenges and options for designing an offset policy that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from two uncapped sectors of the economy—forestry and agriculture.

The report and an earlier companion piece that focused on how to create, measure and verify greenhouse gas offsets from these sectors were meant to aid policy makers who were drafting a federal cap-and-trade bill. This bill increased the likelihood that energy and fuel prices could rise. This, coupled with uncertainty surrounding whether agricultural offsets would be viable, profitable and that voluntary offsets could turn into regulatory requirements in the future, sparked significant concern in the agriculture community.

“What was interesting about offsets was the possibility of tackling all of these concerns at once,” said Nicholas Institute Ecosystem Services Program director Lydia Olander. “Use of offsets in a cap-and-trade policy had the potential to reduce increases in energy and fuel prices; be profitable for farmers; and if farmers were to move voluntarily into offsets there would be little need for future regulation of such activities. That’s why we formed the Technical Working Group on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases—to use science to inform this debate about the potential for offsets from the agricultural sector.”

That’s exactly what it did.

Over the course of several years, the Technical Working Group on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases (T-AGG) synthesized relevant agricultural and economic research to inform agricultural policy and carbon markets. Its review of studies on greenhouse gas mitigation potential showed that changes in agricultural practice can contribute, significantly, to greenhouse gas emissions reductions and carbon storage in the soil. And the analysis confirmed the need for aggregation across larger landscapes to increase greenhouse gas reductions per acre.

The work also raised awareness of the need for better data on the impacts of many potentially beneficial agricultural practices so that decision makers can better weigh the tradeoffs and arrive at the more efficient and economically favorable methods. T-AGG’s findings have been used by carbon market developers, foundations, state officials, and the U.S. Department of Agricultural (USDA) to inform carbon offset programs, research priorities, and funding decisions.

“T-AGG’s 2011-12 synthesis report on GHG mitigation potential was significant as background to our report Quantifying Greenhouse Gas Fluxes in Agriculture and Forestry: Methods for Entity-Scale Inventory,” said Marlen Eve, senior advisor for climate change, USDA Office of the Chief Scientist. “In that report we utilized the synthesis in our efforts to evaluate management practices and to determine the best methods to use to quantify their benefit.”

Further assessment was conducted for the California Air Resources Board to inform development of a scoping report focusing on its greenhouse gas mitigation strategy for agriculture.

Not all the work has been focused in the U.S., there’s also been an international component aimed at improving systems for quantifying greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture—most especially related to the smallholder agriculture in developing countries. Some of this work was featured in a special issue of the journal Environmental Research Letters—exploring not only the current state of agricultural greenhouse gas quantification methods, but the potential for improving these methods.

Although the T-AGG project has ended, extensions of this early analysis continue as researchers explore the gaps in science related to nitrogen.

“We used some of what we learned about nitrogen management with T-AGG and did a more quantitatively intense meta-analysis of fertilizer management effects on air and water quality,” said Alison Eagle, a policy associate in the Nicholas Institute’s Ecosystem Services Program.

Specifically, researchers looked at nitrogen management literature to determine the impact of 4R nutrient management—Right rate, Right timing, Right placement and Right source—on total nitrogen losses relative to yields from corn-based cropping systems in North America. It showed that while there isn’t enough field data to make good recommendations in many regions, there are some consistent benefits associated with reducing fertilizer rates, applying fertilizer later in the season and using nitrification inhibitors.

“The work done by Dr. Alison Eagle and Dr. Lydia Olander has shown that few corn cropping system research studies in the U.S. and southern Canada have simultaneously evaluated nitrate leaching and the subsurface drainage nitrate losses, while also measuring nitrous oxide emissions,” said Cliff Snyder, Nitrogen Program Director, International Plant Nutrition Institute. “As a consequence, there is large uncertainty in potential tradeoffs in 4R nitrogen management to reduce losses of nitrogen from farmer's fields via these two pathways. Through Dr. Eagle's work, the fertilizer industry, agribusiness, and farmers are realizing that much work remains to optimize economic crop production while reducing the risks of nitrogen losses from agricultural cropping systems.”


--Story by Erin McKenzie