Climatic Change

, Volume 40, Issue 1, pp 135–162

CO2 Mitigation by Agriculture: An Overview


  • Keith Paustian
    • Natural Resource Ecology LaboratoryColorado State University
  • C. Vernon Cole
    • Natural Resource Ecology LaboratoryColorado State University
  • Dieter Sauerbeck
    • Institute of Plant Nutrition and Soil Science German Federal Research Centre of Agriculture
  • Neil Sampson
    • American Forests

DOI: 10.1023/A:1005347017157

Cite this article as:
Paustian, K., Cole, C.V., Sauerbeck, D. et al. Climatic Change (1998) 40: 135. doi:10.1023/A:1005347017157


Agriculture currently contributes significantly to the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, primarily through the conversion of native ecosystems to agricultural uses in the tropics. Yet there are major opportunities for mitigation of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions through changes in the use and management of agricultural lands. Agricultural mitigation options can be broadly divided into two categories: (I) strategies to maintain and increase stocks of organic C in soils (and biomass), and (ii) reductions in fossil C consumption, including reduced emissions by the agricultural sector itself and through agricultural production of biofuels to substitute for fossil fuels.

Reducing the conversion of new land to agriculture in the tropics could substantially reduce CO2 emissions, but this option faces several difficult issues including population increase, land tenure and other socio-political factors in developing countries. The most significant opportunities for reducing tropical land conversions are in the humid tropics and in tropical wetlands. An important linkage is to improve the productivity and sustainability of existing agricultural lands in these regions.

Globally, we estimate potential agricultural CO2 mitigation through soil C sequestration to be 0.4-0.9 Pg C y-1, through better management of existing agricultural soils, restoration of degraded lands, permanent "set-asides" of surplus agricultural lands in temperate developed countries and restoration of 10-20% of former wetlands now being used for agriculture. However, soils have a finite capacity to store additional C and therefore any increases in C stocks following changes in management would be largely realized within 50-100 years.

Mitigation potential through reducing direct agricultural emissions is modest, 0.01-0.05 Pg C y-1. However, the potential to offset fossil C consumption through the use of biofuels produced by agriculture is substantial, 0.5-1.6 Pg C y-1, mainly through the production of dedicated biofuel crops with a smaller contribution (0.2-0.3 Pg C y-1) from crop residues.

Many agricultural mitigation options represent "win-win" situations, in that there are important side benefits, in addition to CO2 mitigation, that could be achieved, e.g. improved soil fertility with higher soil organic matter, protection of lands poorly suited for permanent agriculture, cost saving for fossil fuel inputs and diversification of agricultural production (e.g. biofuels). However, the needs for global food production and farmer/societal acceptability suggest that mitigation technologies should conform to: (I) the enhancement of agricultural production levels in parts of the world where food production and population demand are in delicate balance and (ii) the accrual of additional benefits to the farmer (e.g., reduced labor, reduced or more efficient use of inputs) and society at large.

C-sequestrationsoil Cbiofuelsagriculturemitigation potential

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1998