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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides annual estimates of manmade greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States by emissions source, as well as estimates of the amount of carbon trapped in forest and vegetation soil. Our previous articles reviewed the emissions for both 2017 and 2018 as well as trends in carbon sequestration.

The reports highlight U.S. agriculture’s minimal contribution to total U.S. emissions – 10 percent. They also emphasize how productivity gains in crop and livestock production help agriculture reduce per-unit emissions. An equally key takeaway is the impact that increased investment in agricultural research can have in helping farmers and ranchers play a direct role in capturing more carbon in the soils with voluntary and incentive-based practices and markets.

This article provides an overview of 2019 emission estimates in the EPA’s most recent “Draft Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2019 report.” The Draft Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory is available for public comment through March 15. The final report is expected to be published by April 15.

Emissions, sinks detailed

During 2019 total U.S. emissions from all manmade sources totaled 6.6 billion metric tons in carbon-dioxide equivalents. Emissions in 2019 decreased 1.7 percent from 2018 – 166 million metric tons. Land use, land-use changes and forestry trapped 789 million metric tons of carbon in the soils, representing 12 percent of total U.S. emissions. Combined, the net greenhouse-gas emissions in 2019 totaled 5.8 billion metric tons, a decrease of 1.8 percent from 2018. Those estimates put both emissions and net emissions at the third-smallest level in the past 25 years.

The largest emissions source was the transportation sector, representing 28 percent of total emissions and totaling 1.9 billion metric tons. Transportation emissions increased 1 percent or 19 million metric tons from the prior year.

Electricity generation represented more than 25 percent of total emissions at 1.7 billion metric tons. Emissions from the electric-power industry decreased 8 percent from 2018 and were at the smallest level since the series was first recorded in 1990.

The industrial sector – such as iron and steel production, or cement production – represented almost 23 percent of all emissions at 1.5 billion metric tons. Emissions from the industrial sector increased almost 1 percent from 2018.

The commercial and residential sectors along with the U.S. territories represented about 13 percent of U.S. emissions; they decreased 0.2 percent from 2018.

Agricultural emissions increase slightly

Emissions from agriculture totaled 669 million metric tons in carbon-dioxide equivalents during 2019 – an increase of 1.1 percent or 7.5 million metric tons from the previous year. Based on methodology consistent with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, U.S. agricultural emissions totaled 629 million metric tons – an increase of 1.2 percent from 2018.

  • The largest source of U.S. agricultural emissions was agricultural soil management – such as fertilizer applications or tillage practices – at 345 million metric tons, about 55 percent of all agricultural emissions – but only 5 percent of total U.S. emissions.
  • Livestock-related emissions from enteric fermentation and manure management contributed 179 million metric tons and 82 million metric tons, respectively, to total U.S. emissions. Those two emission sources represented 41 percent of agricultural emissions, but only 4 percent of total U.S. emissions.
  • Rice cultivation was at 15 million metric tons.
  • Urea fertilization was at 5.3 million metric tons.
  • Liming was at 2.4 million metric tons.
  • Field burning was at 0.6 million metric tons.

Combined, those categories represented less than 4 percent of agricultural emissions and 0.4 percent of U.S. emissions. As a percent of total U.S. emissions, and depending on the estimation methodology, U.S. agriculture represents about 10 percent of total U.S. emissions.

Agricultural productivity increases

U.S. agricultural emissions since 1990 have increased by 12 percent. But when considering agricultural emissions, productivity gains provide an important perspective. Improvements in crop yields, animal nutrition and breeding have created large changes when compared to 1990.

  • 80 percent more pork – increase of 12 billion pounds
  • 79 percent more corn – increase of 6 billion bushels
  • 51 percent more milk – increase of 75 billion pounds
  • 20 percent more beef – increase of 4.5 billion pounds

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service estimates indices of farm output, input and total factor productivity. Compared to 1990, the United States is producing 143 times more food and agricultural products while largely using the same amount of inputs like fertilizer. During the same time we’ve lost more than 30 million acres of cropland in the United States. Moreover consider the U.S. population has increased by 31 percent or 79 million people; U.S. agriculture has more mouths to feed than ever before. Put simply U.S. farmers and ranchers are producing more food, fibers and renewable fuels for more people while using less land and conserving more natural resources.

When taking those productivity trends into consideration, we flip on its head the 12 percent increase in total U.S. agricultural emissions since 1990. Per capita agricultural emissions have declined by 15 percent since 1990. When agricultural emissions are adjusted by productivity gains, it’s estimated that aggregate agricultural per-unit emissions have declined by more than 20 percent.

Summary

U.S. emissions from all man-made sources during 2019 totaled 6.6 billion metric tons in carbon-dioxide equivalents, a decrease of 1.7 percent from 2018. When taking into consideration carbon trapped in soils through forestry, grasslands, wetlands and cropland, U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions were reduced by 12 percent to a net emissions level of 5.8 billion metric tons – a decrease of 1.8 percent from 2018.

Emissions related to agriculture totaled 669 million metric tons during 2019, an increase of 1.1 percent from the previous year. Based on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change methodology, U.S. agricultural emissions totaled 629 million metric tons in 2019, also a slight increase from the prior year. As a percentage of total U.S. emissions, U.S. agriculture represents about 10 percent of emissions. Livestock-related emissions are at only 4 percent.

When factoring in productivity and population gains, both per-unit and per capita agricultural emissions are declining. That means U.S. agriculture is producing more food, fibers and renewable fuels for more people while using fewer resources and emitting less carbon.

The story doesn’t end with productivity gains. Increased investment in agricultural research can help develop cutting-edge plant and animal technologies to capture more carbon in the soil and reduce livestock-related emissions. Voluntary and incentive-based tools will complement the research efforts to ensure that while farmers and ranchers help to achieve climate goals, they also remain economically sustainable.

Beginning next week, American Farm Bureau Federation Market Intel is launching a five-part series highlighting agricultural ecosystem-credit markets, and the opportunities and challenges they present to farmers.

John Newton is the chief economist with American Farm Bureau Federation Market Intel; visit www.fb.org/market-intel for more information.

This article originally ran on agupdate.com.

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