Improving estimation of nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture

Photo: N. Palmer (CIAT)

Project Description

The development of low-emissions policies depends on accurate and spatially explicit estimates of greenhouse gas emissions. If they are to be useful, these estimates must also take into account variable soil, climate and management conditions.

Recent research has revealed that the current methods used to estimate N2O emissions from nitrogen fertilizer usage may underestimate actual emissions by up to five-fold and fail to identify hotspots. In addition, no scalable model exists that can estimate N2O emissions and we lack the data needed to develop suitable models for GHG emissions in tropical and subtropical wheat- and maize-based cropping systems.  

Thus, decision makers at all levels are setting mitigation priorities based on poor data, especially for estimates of the impacts of nitrogen fertilizer on N2O emissions. Demand for better data is increasing with rapidly growing interest in mitigation options.

This project will address these issues by investigating the following questions:

1) How can models better quantify smallholder GHG emissions/mitigation options with particular emphasis on nitrogen?  

2) How do data requirements, scale, and end-user objectives influence model selection to provide appropriate policy analysis and decision support tools for assessing mitigation priorities?

3) What are the critical trade-offs and synergies between GHG mitigation practices and other smallholder objectives?

At national and regional levels, the project will interactively recommend a broad range of policies, particularly on nitrogen fertilizer subsidies. At the local level, the project will work with extension actors to focus on demonstrating the economic benefits of more efficient nitrogen use.  

The outputs from this research will be used to refine climate-smart practices. Best-bet mitigation practices with other co-benefits will be scaled up through bilateral projects. Local governments, non-governmental organizations and the private sector will implement best-bet mitigation practices, including efficient nitrogen management recommendations from the project.


The objective of this project is to reduce nitrous oxide emissions by 20% from cereal-based systems in India and Mexico. This ambitious goal will be achieved through the provision of data and methods to decision-makers to aid the development of policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By informing UNFCC methods, this research has the potential to contribute massively to mitigation plans globally.

These decision-makers include actors at all levels, including the Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, the IPCC, stakeholders in nitrogen fertilizers and subsidies, and extension actors at local levels. At the global level, the research will improve recommendations for nitrogen management in wheat- and maize-based systems and inform targets for nitrogen management. Decision-makers will use this improved data and methods to support policies that reduce greenhouse emissions and influence policies on nitrogen fertilizer subsidies at international and national levels.

Best-bet mitigation practices with other co-benefits will then be scaled up through bilateral and partner projects. Local government, NGOs and the private sector will implement best-bet mitigation practices at the local level, including efficient nitrogen management recommendations. CCAFS will work with extension actors to focus on demonstrating the economic benefits of more efficient nitrogen use.

Expected Outputs

  • Evaluation and recommendation of most applicable modeling approaches at different scales to address stakeholder requirements for mitigation options in maize- and wheat-based cropping systems.
  • Robust evidence-base support of climate smartness of N management practices at field level.
  • Analysis of landscape-level N2O emission mitigation strategies in maize- and wheat-based cropping systems.
  • Open access database of N2O emissions from agricultural soils including published and unpublished sources where possible.
  • New empirical model(s) for N2O emissions.
  • Technical specification for inclusion of the new N2O model in the Cool Farm Tool and the CCAFS – Mitigation Options Tool (MOT).


The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) will lead this project, in a technical collaboration with the University of Aberdeen. CIMMYT will target research outputs to Fertilizers Europe, the International Fertilizer Association, the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative, the IPCC, the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases, FAOSTAT and private fertilizer companies (such as Yara) to support the identification of optimal regional fertilizer application strategies and extension activities. At the local level, we will work with extension actors to focus on demonstrating the economic benefits of more efficient nitrogen use.

The project will work in collaboration with CCAFS and SAMPLES, and will build capacity of young scientists participating in the Climate, Food and Farming (CLIFF) Network.

Further Information

For further information, please contact Project Leader, Clare Stirling (CIMMYT)