Date: 08 Jun 2012

Greenhouse gas mitigation with scarce land: The potential contribution of increased nitrogen input

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Agricultural lands have been identified to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions primarily by production of energy crops and substituting fossil energy resources and through carbon sequestration in soils. Increased fertilizer input resulting in increased yields may reduce the area needed for crop production. The surplus area could be used for energy production without affecting the land use necessary for food and feed production. We built a model to investigate the effect of changing nitrogen (N) fertilizer rates on cropping area required for a given amount of crops. We found that an increase in nitrogen fertilizer supply is only justified if GHG mitigation with additional land is higher than 9–15 t carbon dioxide equivalents per hectare (CO2-eq../ha). The mitigation potential of bioenergy production from energy crops is most often not in this range. Hence, from a GHG abatement point of view land should rather be used to produce crops at moderate fertilizer rate than to produce energy crops. This may change if farmers are forced to reduce their N input due to taxes or governmental regulations as it is the case in Denmark. However, with a fertilizer rate 10 % below the economical optimum a reduction of N input is still more effective than the production of bioenergy unless mitigation effect of the bioenergy production exceeds 7 t carbon dioxide (CO2)-eq../ha. An intensification of land use in terms of N supply to provide more land for bioenergy production can only in exceptional cases be justified to mitigate GHG emissions with bioenergy under current frame conditions in Germany and Denmark.