Carbon footprints of grain-, forage-, and energy-based cropping systems in the North China plain

  • Xiaolin Yang
  • Beibei Sun
  • Wangsheng Gao
  • Yuanquan Chen
  • Peng Sui



Low carbon footprint agriculture has received increasing attention in the effect of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating climate change. However, little is known about how crop diversification may affect the system productivity and the carbon footprint.


In this study, we analyzed the carbon footprints of four cropping systems: winter wheat (Triticum aestivum L.)–summer maize (Zea mays L.) (WM, grain crop pattern, 1-year cycle); ryegrass (Lolium perenne L.)–sweet sorghum (Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench) (RS, forage crop pattern, 1-year cycle); ryegrass–sweet sorghum → winter wheat–summer maize (RSWM, grain plus forage crop pattern, 2-year cycle); and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) perennial cropping (SG, energy crop pattern) that have been evaluated in a long-term (2009–2015) field experiment in the North China Plain (NCP). Carbon footprints were expressed using three metrics: CFa (per unit area), CFb (per kg of biomass), and CFe (per unit of economic output).

Results and discussion

The results showed that switchgrass as a perennial herbaceous crop with one cut per year had the lowest annual carbon footprint at three metrics. The WM cropping system had the highest annual CFa, CFb, and CFe values which were 1.73, 2.23, and 1.78 times higher, respectively, than those of the RSWM cropping system. The RS cropping system had the lower annual CFa, CFb, and CFe values, which accounted for 20.9, 3.4, and 2.9%, respectively, of the WM cropping system. The four cropping systems had annual carbon footprints at per unit area, per kilogram of biomass and per unit of economic output ranked from lowest to highest of SG < RS < RSWM < WM.


We conclude that appropriately designed, diversified cropping systems that include grain, forage, and bioenergy crops can effectively reduce the carbon footprint while maintaining or even increasing the systems productivity in the North China Plain.


Carbon footprint Cropping system Energy crop Forage crop Grain crop Soil organic carbon 



carbon footprint


carbon footprint per unit area


carbon footprint per kg of biomass


carbon footprint per unit of economic output

CO2 eq

carbon dioxide equivalents


greenhouse gas emissions


North China Plain


ryegrass-sweet sorghum


ryegrass–sweet sorghum → winter wheat–summer maize


switchgrass perennial cropping


Soil organic carbon


winter wheat–summer maize


Funding information

This work was jointly financed by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 31601267) and National Key Project of Scientific and Technical Supporting Programs (No. 2016YFD0300203; No. 2016YFD0300105) and the Chinese Universities Scientific Fund (2017NX003).

Supplementary material

11367_2018_1481_MOESM1_ESM.docx (39 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 39 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of Agronomy and BiotechnologyChina Agricultural UniversityBeijingPeople’s Republic of China

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