Food security relies on nitrogen fertilizers, but its production and use account for approximately 5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Meeting climate change targets requires the identification and prioritization of interventions across the whole life cycle of fertilizers. Here we have mapped the global flows of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and manure and their corresponding GHG emissions across their life cycle. We have then explored the maximum mitigation potential of various interventions to reduce emissions by 2050. We found that approximately two-thirds of fertilizer emissions take place after their deployment in croplands. Increasing nitrogen-use efficiency is the single most effective strategy to reduce emissions. Yet this should be combined with decarbonization of fertilizer production. Using currently available technologies, GHG emissions of fertilizers could be reduced up to approximately one-fifth of current levels by 2050.
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The data supporting the findings of the study are available within the paper and its Supplementary Information. The following databases were used to compute the results shown in Figs. 1 and 2. The regional consumptions of nitrogen fertilizers are available from https://www.ifastat.org/databases/plant-nutrition. The regional productions of nitrogen fertilizers are available from https://www.ifastat.org/supply. The shares of imported and domestically supplied nitrogen fertilizers for each region are estimated by a method described in the Supplementary Information. The forecasted nitrogen-fertilizer demands in 2030 and 2050 are available from https://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/GY. The emissions factors of nitrogen fertilizers in production are obtained from the CFC by Fertilizers Europe. This can be accessed from http://www.calcfert.com upon free registration. The CFC adopts the emissions factor of fossil fuel supply reported by the GaBi database at https://sphera.com/life-cycle-assessment-lca-database. The emissions factors of nitrogen fertilizers in the cropland are reported by the 2019 refinement to the 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories. The direct N2O emissions factors are reported by Bouwman et al.49. Source data are provided with this paper.
The code used for the analysis is generated by Matlab 2022a and is available from https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.86735 upon request.
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We acknowledge financial support from the C-THRU project, and A.C.S. acknowledges the support of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research council in the United Kingdom, through the UK FIRES Programme Grant (grant reference EP/S019111/1). We are thankful for the insightful discussions and suggestions from J. Cullen, E. Masanet, P. Christopher, E. Jin, B. Jabarivelisdeh, W. Zhang and F. Meng.
For the purpose of open access, the authors have applied a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence to any author-accepted manuscript version arising from this submission.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Gao, Y., Cabrera Serrenho, A. Greenhouse gas emissions from nitrogen fertilizers could be reduced by up to one-fifth of current levels by 2050 with combined interventions. Nat Food 4, 170–178 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-023-00698-w
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