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Reduced Use of Nitrogen Fertilizer

Nitrogen fertilizers have been a key factor in the increased yields achieved by modern agriculture, however they also represent one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from global agricultural production resulting in significant emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a GHG with approximately 300 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide (CO2).

In the U.S. alone, N2O emissions from cropland soils were approximately 195 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2014 National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, which is comparable to the emissions of approximately 41 million passenger vehicles annually.

Corn is among the most intensive uses of nitrogen fertilizer, and a large proportion of U.S. agricultural-related N2O emissions stems from corn crops. Managing fertilizer application on corn therefore represents a significant opportunity for efficiencies that could reduce emissions as well as improving water quality in agricultural areas. The estimated technical potential of emission reductions in the Midwest alone is approximately six million metric tons of CO2e per year.

The Delta Nitrogen Credit Program – How it works

The Delta Institute recently launched a Nitrogen Credit Program (NCP) offering eligible Corn Belt farmers a financial incentive to voluntarily reduce nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions by curbing the amount of nitrogen-based fertilizer used to grow corn. Participating farmers will be compensated for the GHG emissions reductions they achieve.

The GHG emissions reductions will be quantified and verified following an approved ACR methodology, which was developed jointly by Michigan State University (MSU) and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). The science that underlies the MSU-EPRI offset methodology represents results from 3 years of scientific research by MSU scientists conducted at the National Science Foundation’s Kellogg Biological Station Long-term Ecological Research site and on commercial farms in Michigan.

MSU field trials have shown that the rate of Nitrogen fertilizer is the best predictor of N2O emissions in row crop agriculture in the U.S. Midwest. By demonstrating increases in Nitrogen use efficiency from rate adjustments, farmers can reduce their N2O emissions and generate carbon credits without sacrificing yield.

The Benefits

Participating farms in the Nitrogen Credit Program will not only benefit the environment by contributing to GHG emissions reductions, but also to improved local water quality by reducing nutrient pollution of lakes, rivers and streams.

Fertilizer are rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, both of which are primary sources of  water pollution from agricultural sources. Excess nutrients can impact water quality when it rains or when water and soil containing nitrogen and phosphorus wash into nearby waters or leach into ground waters.

Since groundwater often discharges into surface water, nutrient concentrations in groundwater can affect the surface water quality. When bodies of water become over-enriched with nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus they suffer from eutrophication, a condition in which harmful algae blooms rob the water of oxygen. Eutrophic waters hold too little oxygen to support aquatic life.

Applying fertilizers in the proper amount, at the right time of year and with the right method can significantly reduce the potential for local water pollution.

Carbon Markets

The Nitrogen Credit Program marks an important milestone in incentivizing adoption of voluntary low emissions agriculture practices by broadening the opportunities for farmers to participate in carbon markets. 

In 2014, ACR issued the first verified carbon offsets to a Michigan farmer participating in the Delta Institute Nitrogen Credit Program. The offsets generated by the farmer’s project were sold by the Program to The Climate Trust, an Oregon-based non-profit organization engaged in efforts to reduce GHG emissions.

For more information on the Delta Institute Nitrogen Credit Program, contact Ryan Anderson at randerson@delta-institute.org