By MATTHEW HALL
Capital News Service
LANSING — Michigan farmers who cut their fertilizer use could help reduce greenhouse gases.
And if done through a new emissions trading program, they could get other industries to pay them to do it without harming crop yields.
The method encourages farmers to lower emissions of nitrous oxide from fertilizer. Nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas linked to human-induced global warming.
“It’s a carrot rather than a stick,” said Adam Diamant, technical executive at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., which developed the method with Michigan State University scientists.
Financial incentives could help the environment better than penalties, he said.
Here’s how it works: Researchers developed a way to accurately measure the greenhouse gas reductions farmers achieve. That way, farmers can be awarded the right amount of credits to sell in an emissions-trading market.
Such markets allow increases in emissions somewhere to be offset by equal decreases in emissions somewhere else. Credits can be earned by reducing emissions, by increasing efficiency or even by planting trees, which convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.
Another business can buy those credits instead of reducing its own emissions.
In a “cap- and-trade” market, regulations limit the amount of emissions a business can generate, and buying credits may be cheaper than making internal reductions in the purchaser’s own emissions.
In a voluntary market like the one in which this method is using, businesses voluntarily buy credits to meet internal sustainability goals or to gain an environmentally friendly label.
Businesses also might find voluntary trading to be good practice should any mandatory regulations come in the future.
The hope is that the method will encourage farmers in Michigan and elsewhere in the Great Lakes not to over-fertilize crops, helping to keep in check the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, said the method’s developers. And the strategy offers additional savings without cutting yields.
“It’s also a way to reduce costs of fertilizer on the farm land,” said Neville Millar, senior research associate at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners who field-tested the method.
Farmers can earn the credits by reducing fertilizer, better timing its application, using alternatives that inhibit nitrogen processes in the soil and containing nitrate runoff that can convert to nitrous oxide as it drains away.
Many farmers apply too much fertilizer when their crops don’t need it, said Millar. Farmers reason they’d rather over-fertilize than risk cutting their yields.
But there’s a point of diminishing returns in applying fertilizer, Millar said.
These methods, in tandem with an emissions-trading market, encourage farmers to lower how much they fertilize, reduce emissions and make a profit for doing so, the developers said.
“This innovative approach is a way to achieve a win for farmers, for industrial organizations that may be required to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, for the atmosphere and for improved surface water quality from reduced nitrate runoff in the upper Midwest all the way to the Gulf of Mexico,” Diamant said
Whether businesses participate may depend on the nature of the market and whether they value the environmentally friendly label.
Farmers themselves may join the market so long as it’s voluntary and yields aren’t hurt, said Bob Boehm, manager of the Commodity and Marketing Department at the Michigan Farm Bureau. “If it’s voluntary and it will help, I’m sure there would be some people that would participate.”
Diamant said those reluctant to join may only need to see a few leading farmers show that it can work.
Myron Ortner, a corn farmer in Denmark Township, Tuscola County, is giving it a shot.
Millar asked him to try out the method at a larger scale than what was tested at the university. Ortner has already dropped his nitrate levels by 10 percent.
Credits were a part of Ortner’s motivation, “but also looking after the environment,” he said.
He said he’s excited about the project and hopes similar practices will spread, adding, “It’s going to take a big sale, but it’s possible.”
The method for measuring emissions was approved in July as a part of a protocol by the American Carbon Registry, a nongovernmental emissions standards-setting organization in Arlington, Va.
Farmers and businesses can now trade emissions in the designated north central region that covers Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois.
Matthew Hall writes for Great Lakes Echo.
By MATTHEW HALL