Since 2021, with the Leaders’ Summit on Climate and the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, the global development agenda has increasingly focused on the “emission peak” and “carbon neutrality” goals and the transition to a green economy.
According to a pioneering new study published in Nature Food in early 2021, the world’s food systems are responsible for more than one-third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Some two-thirds of these emissions come from the land-based sector, comprising farming, land use and land-use changes. That figure is higher for developing countries, where absolute agricultural GHG emissions continuously increase.
The situation of global agricultural carbon emissions
Figure 1: Global agricultural GHG emissions (e.g. CO2) (Unit: 100 million tons; source: FAO)
The changes in global agricultural GHG emissions since 2010 are shown in the figure above (data from FAO). Overall, one can see from the figure that global GHG emissions from agricultural systems have been increasing year on year over the last decade, reaching 5,979 million tons and 5,959 million tons in 2017 and 2019, respectively. Agriculture is an essential source of carbon emissions and a significant source of non-CO2 greenhouse gases (mainly CH4 and N2O). Agricultural carbon emissions consist of five main ways: N2O from the soil, CH4 from ruminants, CH4 from rice cultivation, CH4 and N2O from manure, and CH4 and N2O from biomass burning, accounting for 14% of total global anthropogenic emissions. Among them, CH4 emissions from agricultural sources account for 50% of total human emissions of CH4, mainly from fermentative digestion, residue and manure management of ruminants and rice cultivation. N2O missions from agricultural sources account for 84% of total human emissions of N2O, mainly from the microbial transformation of nitrogen in soil and manure; CO2 emissions from agrarian sources account for 15% of human CO2 emissions, mainly from land-use change, especially deforestation.
The annual average of agricultural carbon emissions varies significantly between countries and regions, depending on many factors such as the level of economic development, environmental resources and policies. For example, Asia emits 2,594 million tons of greenhouse gases such as CO2, accounting for 43.5% of global emissions, while the Americas, Africa and Europe are also important regions for agricultural carbon emissions, accounting for 25.7%, 17.5% and 10.3% of total emissions, respectively. India, China and Brazil are the top three countries with the highest agricultural carbon emissions. Generally, developing countries have a more pronounced problem with agricultural carbon emissions.
Figure 2: Proportion of agricultural carbon emissions by global subregion (Source: FAO)
Figure 3: Annual average of global agricultural carbon emissions by country (Unit: 100 million tons; source: FAO)
The underlying logic of reducing carbon emissions of agriculture
Under the global green development situation driven by the goals of “emission peak” and “carbon neutrality”, it is imperative for agriculture, a massive carbon source and sink system, to reduce carbon emissions. The logic of reducing carbon emissions of agriculture can be focused on the following two aspects:
Focusing on product inputs at the source of farming
By rationally adjusting the application methods of pesticides and fertilizers and selecting greener and more efficient new agricultural products, it is helpful to reduce N2O emissions from farmland and mitigate the pollution to the soil by optimizing the application and production process to avoid GHG emissions during the production process.
Adjusting the cropping mode of land
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s global carbon emission research data over the years, farmer’s choice of cropping mode and adjustment of land management mode can make a difference in the carbon emission results of farmland. Frequent ploughing or tilling, irrigation, overgrazing and the use of heavy agricultural equipment can all contribute to soil degradation. Farmers can use no-till, crop rotation and other protective practices to extend soil fertility and achieve sustainable farming.
How agrochemical companies act on the journey to carbon neutrality
With the continuous development of the economy and society, and the gradual popularization of the “emission peak” and “carbon neutrality” policies, agricultural production and agrochemical products have shifted their focus from quantity to quality and safety. To adapt to the new development policies and market demand, agrochemical companies are also constantly transforming toward safety and green, with many of them initiating their green development mode. The contents of some companies' sustainability reports and ESG reports over the years have disclosed a lot of information.
According to the author’s continuous observation, the green development concept and carbon emission reduction actions of world-renowned agrochemical companies, in response to the above-mentioned underlying logic of agricultural carbon emission reduction, are mainly focused on the following aspects. The first is to focus on the research and development of efficient, safe and environment-friendly new agrochemical products, which can help reduce pollution and emissions at the source of farming and allow crops to grow more efficiently. The second is to optimize the product production process and collaborate an efficient enterprise management to achieve a win-win outcome between companies’ cost-effectiveness and the “emission peak” and “carbon neutrality” goals through energy optimization and sustainable supply chain management. The third is to strengthen the interactive social network of farmers. Incentive measures and other policies benefiting farmers should be introduced to guide them to adopt an environment-friendly farming mode and secure a balance among farmers' production efficiency, corporate efficiency and social responsibility, and the realization of the “emission peak” and “carbon neutrality” goals. Meanwhile, a close partnership should be formed between different companies who should establish exchanges with major companies in product research and development, investment and other fields to expand respective influence and jointly explore the way of green development through cooperation.
UPL’s complete global portfolio of products and technologies excels in efficient yield support and reducing carbon emissions of agriculture. Decco, a subsidiary of UPL specialized in post-harvest solutions, provide treatment for over 8.9 million tons of citrus crops annually, preventing food waste and reducing storage emissions from citrus and other crops. UPL’s climate-smart technology Zeba is a sustainable tool to reduce the water requirement for irrigation and can help save water by 11~20% per ton of potatoes grown. Additionally, Zeba is launched in Iberia for open field tomatoes. For its Maize Integrated Project (IPM) at Mali, Africa, UPL has incorporated the Aflasafe technology to control the aflatoxin level of the crops. This facilitates the sustainable growth of maize production and ensures food security for most staple crops in the region.
In terms of its product technology and processes, UPL devised changes in synthesis routes to reduce effluent generation, catalyst consumption and improve yield. For example, in the process design of a key herbicide, UPL enabled the improvement in yield by 1%, equivalent to 700 tons/year of raw materials in addition to the reduction of consumption of the catalyst by 50% (100 tons/year). UPL has also optimized its own supply chain carbon footprint by working with different supplier partners. In one of its fungicide, UPL’s consistent efforts to reduce dependency on imported raw materials and intermediaries has enabled it to set up local manufacturing facilities in collaboration with local suppliers and contract manufacturers. With 60% of raw materials being sourced locally, UPL has considerably reduced freight emissions, lead time and cost. In 2021, with joint collaborative efforts of its procurement, technical and quality team, UPL was able to secure a local supplier for methyl chloride, reducing freight emissions by ~80%, in addition to cost and lead time reduction.
In the 2020-21 fiscal year, UPL’s range of initiatives in carbon emissions, water management, waste management and supplier environmental assessment optimization have delivered significant results. Overall, UPL’s manufacturing plants consumed 42,080 MWh of electricity sourced from wind and solar, with reduced CO2 emission intensity by 15%, and 3,698,342 KL of water, with enhanced water utilization efficiency by 13%.
“We are uniquely placed with our technology platform, a wide portfolio of differentiated and biosolutions products, and our diverse and expansive product pipeline. We work with farmers across crop segments and offer them solutions integrated with technology to make them more sustainable. These efforts are driven by our best-in-class research and development efforts that further our reimagining sustainability agenda,” said Jai Shrof, UPL’s Global Chief Executive Officer.
On its journey to carbon neutrality, BASF has set the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Based on the most recent progress in developing low-emission and CO2-free technologies, the company is also significantly raising its medium-term 2030 target for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions: to reduce its GHG emissions worldwide by 25 percent compared with 2018. To contribute to this ambitious goal, all sites of BASF in Greater China have taken measures to reduce GHG emissions. Despite growth in production volumes in recent years, fuel consumption for central energy supply has decreased yearly since 2018. The consumption totaled 834,000 MWh in 2020 (2019: 872,000 MWh), a decrease of 4%. BASF reduced its Scope 1 emissions by reducing the total fuel consumption (central power plants and boilers). The continuous optimization of production processes contributed to this reduction. One site in Shanghai improved a steam trap system to diminish loss. Another site in Shanghai modified a spin flash dryer feeding system to save energy and natural gas. Facilities with high energy consumption were identified and projects were undertaken. For example, one site in Guangdong upgraded its thermal oxidation furnace feeding control system to reduce diesel oil consumption. A site in Jiangsu reduced its nitrogen consumption by optimizing its feeding system. Some sites started up photovoltaic plants to further reduce the use of and dependency on energy derived from fossil fuels.
In addition to GHG emissions, BASF measures emissions of other air pollutants, including inorganic compounds like carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ammonia, as well as dust or non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC). In 2020, emissions to air from BASF’s chemical operations in Greater China decreased 16% from the previous year, totaling 252 tons (2019: 299 tons), a 16% reduction year-on-year. This decline in emissions is attributable to investments made at several production sites involving the treatment process of NMVOCs. BASF has been researching and developing recycling solutions for relevant solid wastes in terms of waste treatment and processes. In 2020, due to the increase in production volumes, BASF generated more solid waste. However, due to the adjustment and use of filtration tools and adsorbent materials at several production sites, the waste recycling rate at production plants increased instead.
In 2020, BASF Venture Capital invested in Sunrise Packaging, a leading Chinese manufacturing company specialized in flexible multi-layer coextruded functional packaging materials and became the latter’s solely strategic investor. In addition, BASF is ready to partner with Sunrise to continuously innovate in the field of environmental protection, especially biodegradable materials, tackling the challenges brought by the climate change and promoting sustainable development.
In an interview with the media, BASF Global Senior Vice President Dr. Zheng Daqing said that to achieve the goal of zero-carbon development, it is necessary for companies to consider partners’ energy-saving and carbon emission reduction capabilities in addition to their commercial capability, and take the former as a key part of competitiveness, thus forcing companies in all segments of the industry to upgrade towards a sustainable development.
“Our products are made up of 50 percent carbon, and a carbon-free chemical industry is simply not possible. Although the chemical industry cannot avoid the issue of carbon, it can use carbon more efficiently and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We are optimistic that these processes can be implemented from 2030 onward. Further options, such as the use of biomass, CO2 or waste as a raw material for chemical production will also increasingly play a role. Sectors like the chemical industry, which compete in an international market, cannot pass on the additional costs caused by low- CO2 technologies to their customers. Therefore, globally comparable carbon pricing – or at least at the G20 level – is the best solution to ensure competitiveness,” commented Dr. Brudermüller, Chairman of the Board of Executive Directors of BASF.
Many agrochemical companies optimize their product R&D and manufacturing process to achieve carbon emission reduction. Some companies establish connections with farmers and guide them towards environment-friendly farming through different incentives and other measures, to achieve a win-win outcome for both companies and the farmers. AgriCapture, an agricultural data and consulting company focusing on carbon offset, provides carbon consulting services to farmers, farms or agricultural companies by studying the carbon offset and economic benefits of land management modes.
Agriculture, forestry, and land use account for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but only two percent of US agricultural land is enrolled in Carbon Offsetting Initiatives. However, soil is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, with 3.1x the capacity of the atmosphere and holding 80% of the Earth’s terrestrial carbon. Regenerative agricultural practices increase and accelerate the amount of carbon stored in the soil while simultaneously reducing emissions from agricultural operations. In August 2021, AgriCapture and four major landowners in the Mississippi River Valley, set out to showcase the environmental and economic benefits of regenerative agriculture practices. AgriCapture inspired wider adoption of regenerative agriculture practices throughout the region and generated new revenue streams for landowners implementing these practices.
The project covers 51,691 acres of farmland in the Mississippi River Valley, producing cotton, corn, soybeans, and rice for no more than two years. Through baseline data collection, on-farm consultation, planting-growing-harvesting, and outcome analysis, AgriCapture inspired farmers, farms or agricultural companies to adopt sustainable land management practices. AgriCapture partnered with the following landowners:
LandFund Partners – 26,006 acres
McClendon Land Co – 12,207 acres
David B. Griffin – 12,903 acres
McKaskle Family Farm – 575 acres
AgriCapture helped landowners identify and implement climate-friendly practices, at no added net cost, by generating new revenue streams and positively impacting climate change as a result. Its core competitiveness lies in AgriCapture using big data and automation technology to guide farmers on quantifying, monitoring, reporting, and verifying agricultural practices that enhance carbon storage in soils. The benefits for project participants include new revenue streams, increased land value, enhanced soil carbon sequestration capacity (soil carbon sequestration), premiums for sustainably grown crops, sustainable land development, etc.
“We started piloting regenerative practices on our farms in 2019. We have steadily increased the number of acres employing regenerative practices, such as cover cropping and reduced tillage. I am really encouraged by the early results. With AgriCapture’s support, we will be able to quantify our real impact on the land and pursue new opportunities that positively impact our bottom line,” said project participant Larry McLendon at McLendon Land Co.
One of the most important topics on sustainable land management mode is based on improved efficiency of atmospheric carbon sequestration. Data from agricultural systems and rangeland trials show that carbon can be efficiently sequestered by soils when no-till, covering cultivation, rotation, and rotation grazing are used. In terms of the economic benefits of regenerative agriculture, the simulation study taking the United States as an example shows that: for every 1% increase in the area of corn, soybean or wheat farmland implementing regenerative agriculture practices (just covering no-till, rotation and covering cultivation), the non-agricultural economic benefits, namely, the reduction of GHG emissions, nutrient losses, soil erosion and net water consumption, is US$29.7 million, $90.1 million, $75.8 million and $30.6 million, respectively, totaling $226 million. The benefit will come to $7.435 billion if the percentage is increased to 50%, and the potential social benefits will be $18.744 billion if the percentage is increased to 100%. (Data from The Nature Conservancy, 2020).
This article was initially published in AgroPages' 'Annual Review 2021' magazine.