The biggest opportunities to cut U.S. agricultural emissions this decade

Farming and forestry solutions are necessary to stabilize the climate

Agriculture contributes 10% of annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. can’t achieve its goal to cut national emissions in half by 2030 without net emissions reductions from crop and livestock production and more carbon storage in forests. Until now, details about how to do so were unclear.

A new report from Environmental Defense Fund and ICF — Ambitious Climate Mitigation Pathways for U.S. Agriculture and Forestry: Vision for 2030 — provides the first set of science-based targets for annual emission reductions from U.S. farms, ranches and forests.

By 2030, U.S. agriculture can cut annual emissions by 23%, and U.S. forests can increase carbon dioxide removals by 43%, as compared to 2018 levels. These targets are bold but achievable. The report synthesizes expert assessments to identify the most impactful, lowest-cost pathways to deliver annual emissions cuts of approximately 560 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent, which has the same climate benefit as avoiding the annual emissions of 120 million gasoline-powered cars or 150 coal-fired power plants.

The top four agriculture and forestry climate solutions

1. Cut agricultural methane emissions 25% by 2030 

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Cutting methane emissions is a climate opportunity we can’t afford to miss. It’s the fastest way to slow the rate of warming this decade, and agriculture has a big role to play.

Beef, dairy and rice farming contribute nearly 40% of annual U.S. methane emissions. Enteric emissions from cattle digesting food is the single largest source of methane in the U.S.

Annual agricultural methane emissions can be reduced by 63 MMT of CO2e by 2030. More than half (34 MMT CO2e) would come from reducing methane emissions from enteric fermentation using methane-inhibiting feed additives and animal drugs, and improved animal health and genetics. Most of the remaining (29 MMT CO2e) would come from changing the way manure is stored and managed.

2. Cut agricultural nitrous oxide emissions 9% by 2030

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Fertilizer is necessary to grow enough food for a growing population, but too much fertilizer creates nitrous oxide, a potent GHG.

Annual agricultural nitrous oxide emissions can be reduced by 32 MMT CO2e by 2030. The majority (27 MMT CO2e) would come from improving nitrogen management on cropland. The rest (8 MMT CO2e) would come from improving manure management and using nitrification inhibitors on grazing land.

3. Cut carbon dioxide emissions from land use changes 72% by 2030

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Forests, grasslands and wetlands draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it above and below ground. Converting these landscapes into crop land or urban residential developments releases that carbon back into the atmosphere and accelerates warming.

Agriculture and forestry can cut 135 MMT CO2 annually by 2030.

Immediately halting all development of U.S. forests into urban areas would avoid the emission of 63 MMT CO2 annually. Immediately halting all conversion of U.S. forests, grasslands and wetlands into cropland would avoid the emission of 55 MMT of CO2 annually.

A further 17 MMT CO2 can be avoided annually by reducing emissions from fertilizer manufacturing and distribution, improving electricity efficiency on farms, and reducing fossil fuel used by farm equipment.

4. Increase carbon storage in forests 32% by 2030

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Trees are climate superheroes, and they also protect water quality, support biodiversity, and provide recreation and revenue opportunities. Agriculture and forestry can increase their annual carbon dioxide drawdown potential to remove an additional 330 MMT CO2 through reforestation, improved forest management and agroforestry.

Reforesting land can remove 150 MMT CO2 from the atmosphere. Improving the management of existing forests — which includes improved management of pests, diseases and fires — would remove and avoid an additional 100 MMT CO2.

Agroforestry, which integrates trees and shrubs into crop and pastureland, would remove 80 MMT CO2.