A new focus issue of the journal Environmental Research Letters explores the current state and near term potential for improved quantification of agricultural greenhouse gases begins today with the release of six articles and two framing perspectives by L Olander, N Berry, D Lobell, T-G Vagen, C Lloyd, and F Tubiello. These are the first articles of the full series to be published throughout the coming months. Together the articles in this issue form a vision for an improved quantification system.

The world's population is growing rapidly: an estimated eight billion people by 2030, nine billion by 2050. Feeding the world sustainably requires balancing a growing population's food and nutritional needs while limiting the greenhouse gases released by agriculture – a growing contributor to climate change. We cannot make informed decisions to achieve this balance without accurate data on agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions – at the local, national and international level.

Because developing countries must increasingly identify and report emissions to access climate financing incentives or carbon markets, an inability to produce accurate and consistent data eliminates potential revenue for countries that need it most. At the national level, policies to reduce emissions and expand sustainable agriculture practices will benefit if countries have a way to monitor them.

The issue is sponsored by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, with support from The David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

The first set of articles in the special issue by L Olander, N Berry, D Lobell, T-G Vagen, C Lloyd, and F Tubiello synthesize the current state of GHG quantification methods and propose innovations for policymakers in developing countries, who seek accurate and cost-effective methods to report on GHG stocks and emission. These innovations include:

  • Improving field measurements for soil carbon. The amount of carbon in soil is a key indicator of agricultural emissions. One study (Vagen et al.) finds that remote sensing data when calibrated to field data (measurements of soil mass) can be used to estimate soil carbon on a landscape scale (measured as soil organic carbon or SOC). This appears to be a significant improvement over current approaches when quantifying soil carbon on larger scales. This could improve estimates of carbon storage (sequestration) and lead to mitigation activities that are better targeted to geographic regions.
  • Investing in agricultural adaptation. A key objective for many governments is to maintain or enhance food production. Making sure agricultural production is resilient and well adapted to climate change is a key aspect of this. Lobell et al. find that broad-based efforts to adapt agriculture to climate change have mitigation co-benefits that are inexpensive relative to many activities whose main purpose is mitigation. The results challenge most existing climate financing portfolios, which support adaptation funds separately from mitigation ones.
  • Improved agricultural GHG data systems. Tubiello et al. present trends in GHG emissions from the agricultural sector and net deforestation using a new GHG database developed at FAO. They show that agricultural emissions increased from 200 to 2010, and that emissions from agriculture have been consistently larger than those from net deforestation.
  • Low-cost GHG quantification. Lloyd et al. outline the available and affordable tools that monitor GHG emissions from agricultural wetlands. The authors suggest higher efficacy through use of low-cost quantification tools over more accurate ones due to high probability of failure when using the latter method.

Targeted investments in soil carbon measurements, adaptation, GHG data systems, and low-cost GHG quantification methods could result in dramatic and relatively quick reductions in agricultural GHG emissions.

Click here for a link to all the articles