IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change

8.4 Description and assessment of mitigation technologies and practices, options and potentials, costs and sustainability

8.4.1 Mitigation technologies and practices

Opportunities for mitigating GHGs in agriculture fall into three broad categories[1], based on the underlying mechanism:

a. Reducing emissions: Agriculture releases to the atmosphere significant amounts of CO2, CH4, or N2O (Cole et al., 1997; IPCC, 2001a; Paustian et al., 2004). The fluxes of these gases can be reduced by more efficient management of carbon and nitrogen flows in agricultural ecosystems. For example, practices that deliver added N more efficiently to crops often reduce N2O emissions (Bouwman, 2001), and managing livestock to make most efficient use of feeds often reduces amounts of CH4 produced (Clemens and Ahlgrimm, 2001). The approaches that best reduce emissions depend on local conditions, and therefore, vary from region to region.

b. Enhancing removals: Agricultural ecosystems hold large carbon reserves (IPCC, 2001a), mostly in soil organic matter. Historically, these systems have lost more than 50 Pg C (Paustian et al., 1998; Lal, 1999, 2004a), but some of this carbon lost can be recovered through improved management, thereby withdrawing atmospheric CO2. Any practice that increases the photosynthetic input of carbon and/or slows the return of stored carbon to CO2 via respiration, fire or erosion will increase carbon reserves, thereby ‘sequestering’ carbon or building carbon ‘sinks’. Many studies, worldwide, have now shown that significant amounts of soil carbon can be stored in this way, through a range of practices, suited to local conditions (Lal, 2004a). Significant amounts of vegetative carbon can also be stored in agro-forestry systems or other perennial plantings on agricultural lands (Albrecht and Kandji, 2003). Agricultural lands also remove CH4 from the atmosphere by oxidation (but less than forests; Tate et al., 2006), but this effect is small compared to other GHG fluxes (Smith and Conen, 2004).

c. Avoiding (or displacing) emissions: Crops and residues from agricultural lands can be used as a source of fuel, either directly or after conversion to fuels such as ethanol or diesel (Schneider and McCarl, 2003; Cannell, 2003). These bio-energy feedstocks still release CO2 upon combustion, but now the carbon is of recent atmospheric origin (via photosynthesis), rather than from fossil carbon. The net benefit of these bio-energy sources to the atmosphere is equal to the fossil-derived emissions displaced, less any emissions from producing, transporting, and processing. GHG emissions, notably CO2, can also be avoided by agricultural management practices that forestall the cultivation of new lands now under forest, grassland, or other non-agricultural vegetation (Foley et al., 2005).

Many practices have been advocated to mitigate emissions through the mechanisms cited above. Often, a practice will affect more than one gas, by more than one mechanism, sometimes in opposite ways, so the net benefit depends on the combined effects on all gases (Robertson and Grace, 2004; Schils et al., 2005; Koga et al., 2006). In addition, the temporal pattern of influence may vary among practices or among gases for a given practice; some emissions are reduced indefinitely, other reductions are temporary (Six et al., 2004; Marland et al., 2003a). Where a practice affects radiative forcing through other mechanisms such as aerosols or albedo, those impacts also need to be considered (Marland et al., 2003b; Andreae et al., 2005).

The impacts of the mitigation options considered are summarized qualitatively in Table 8.3. Although comprehensive life-cycle analyses are not always possible, given the complexity of many farming systems, the table also includes estimates of the confidence based on expert opinion that the practice can reduce overall net emissions at the site of adoption. Some of these practices also have indirect effects on ecosystems elsewhere. For example, increased productivity in existing croplands could avoid deforestation and its attendant emissions (see also Section 8.8). The most important options are discussed in Section 8.4.1.

Table 8.3: Proposed measures for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural ecosystems, their apparent effects on reducing emissions of individual gases where adopted (mitigative effect), and an estimate of scientific confidence that the proposed practice can reduce overall net emissions at the site of adoption.

   Mitigative effectsa  Net mitigationb (confidence) 
Measure Examples CO2 CH4 N2O Agreement Evidence 
Cropland management Agronomy    +/- *** ** 
Nutrient management   *** ** 
Tillage/residue management   +/- ** ** 
Water management (irrigation, drainage) +/-   
Rice management +/- +/-  ** ** 
Agro-forestry   +/- *** 
Set-aside, land-use change ***  *** 
Grazing land management/ pasture improvement Grazing intensity +/- +/- +/- 
Increased productivity (e.g., fertilization)   +/- ** 
Nutrient management   +/- ** ** 
Fire management +/- 
Species introduction (including legumes)   +/- ** 
Management of organic soils Avoid drainage of wetlands +/- ** ** 
Restoration of degraded lands Erosion control, organic amendments, nutrient amendments   +/- *** ** 
Livestock management Improved feeding practices   ***  *** 
Specific agents and dietary additives     **  *** 
Longer term structural and management changes and animal breeding   ** 
Manure/biosolid management Improved storage and handling    +/- *** ** 
Anaerobic digestion   +/- *** 
More efficient use as nutrient source   *** ** 
Bio-energy Energy crops, solid, liquid, biogas, residues +/- +/- *** ** 


a + denotes reduced emissions or enhanced removal (positive mitigative effect);

- denotes increased emissions or suppressed removal (negative mitigative effect);

+/- denotes uncertain or variable response.

b A qualitative estimate of the confidence in describing the proposed practice as a measure for reducing net emissions of greenhouse gases, expressed as CO2-eq:

Agreement refers to the relative degree of consensus in the literature (the more asterisks, the higher the agreement); Evidence refers to the relative amount of data in support of the proposed effect (the more asterisks, the more evidence).

Source: adapted from Smith et al., 2007a.


  1. ^  Smith et al. (2007a) have recently reviewed mechanisms for agricultural GHG mitigation. This section draws largely from that study.