Reducing Emissions From Fertilizer Use Report FAQ

What are fertilizers?

Fertilizers are food for plants: they provide nutrients for plants to grow and thrive.

A mineral plant nutrient is an element which is essential or beneficial for plant growth and development or for the quality attributes of the harvested product of a given plant species grown in its natural or cultivated environment.

In addition to carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, which they get from the atmosphere and water, plants need numerous essential nutrients for their growth and health, which fertilizers provide:

Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) are the primary nutrients in commercial fertilizers.

Other plant nutrients are sulphur (S), magnesium (Mg), calcium (Ca), zinc (Zn), iron (Fe), boron (B), manganese (Mn), copper (Cu), molybdenum (Mo), chlorine (Cl), nickel (Ni), iodine (I). Additional plant nutrients are required by a few plant species, e.g., sodium (Na) and cobalt (Co).

Why are mineral fertilizers so essential to food systems around the world?

Mineral fertilizer plays an essential role in our food systems: it increases the volume of food that can be grown on a fixed amount of land. Approximately half the food we eat today has been produced thanks to mineral fertilizer.

What is the problem that this report is addressing?

Farming around the world relies on fertilizers and particularly nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – the three nutrients required in largest quantities for plant growth.

In some regions farmers use too much fertilizer while, in others, they use too little. In other places, they use the right amount, but not necessarily efficiently. When nitrogen fertilizer is overused, it can result in large losses to the environment and related negative impacts. When too much fertilizer is applied, plants can’t take it all up. Instead, it will be lost to the environment in various forms, including ammonia, nitrates, nitrogen oxides and nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential about 300 times that of carbon dioxide.

Greenhouse gas emissions associated with fertilizer use totalled an estimated 720 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent a year in 2019; these are primarily nitrous oxide.

Who’s involved in solving this, according to the report?

The term ‘scope 3’ covers all the indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain. So, before companies can confidently define themselves as ‘sustainable’ or ‘net-zero,’ they need to factor in these emissions – or help to eliminate them.

Emissions from fertilizer use form the majority of fertilizer companies’ scope 3 emissions and a significant proportion of their total emissions footprint. These emissions are also part of the food manufacturers, retailers and traders’ upstream scope 3.

Farmers will be key to realizing opportunities to reduce emissions and solutions must be farmer centric. The fertilizer sector needs to scale up its work with farmers to create the right environment for more efficient and effective fertilizer use. An opportunity exists for fertilizer companies and the downstream food chain to work together with farmers to use fertilizer better and reduce food’s greenhouse gas footprint.

What does the report recommend?

This report serves as an important resource for fertilizer companies and other stakeholders interested in working with the industry to help feed the world sustainably. It presents analysis of actions that would lower emissions over the next 30 years — and finds that more than a significant amount of the potential 70% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050 could be achieved by applying existing knowledge and technologies. Many of the recommendations in the report build on current activity but also require new initiatives.

By now, we are used to the idea that the cheapest, greenest energy is the energy we don’t use. The same is true of fertilizers – but the key is more efficient and more effective use.

The main way to reduce GHG emissions is to apply best farm management practices more consistently.

The industry’s 4R Nutrient Stewardship Framework – applying the right nutrient source, at the right rate, at the right time, in the right place – is in widespread use and could go further. It involves, among other things, matching mineral fertilizer applications more closely to the needs of a particular crop and local soil properties and ensuring a balanced supply of all nutrients. This means the crop is more likely to absorb the fertilizer before it can escape as a GHG.

Further emissions savings can be achieved by using products that slow the release of nutrients and hence reduce GHG losses, e.g., nitrification and urease inhibitors or controlled-release fertilizers. More research and product development are needed to make these technologies more affordable, and to better understand how they work.

Promoting wider changes in the agri-food system would also reduce the need for mineral nitrogen fertilizer and lower emissions. This includes farmers growing more legumes, such as soybeans, that need less nitrogen fertilizer, and populations reducing their animal product consumption in countries where it makes sense to do so.

What about the emissions that cannot be eliminated?

Not all emissions from fertilizer use can be eliminated because, due to soil microbial activity, some nutrients will inevitably escape before they can be absorbed by crops. Fertilizer companies and partners in the food value chain can help neutralize these remaining emissions by working with farmers to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in agricultural soils.

What should fertilizer companies scale up, according to the report?

Achieving these emissions reductions will require close work with farmers to try to overcome some of the reasons many farmers are not able to adopt the required management practices, for example lack of knowledge.

It will also require engagement with the wider value chain to further strengthen the commercial incentives for implementing good fertilizer management practices.

More widespread work with the public sector and wider industry could support increased product development activity to further bring down emissions.

Finally, the fertilizer sector should engage with policymakers to develop policies consistent with emissions reductions.

How does this report fit into the industry’s overall strategy?

The fertilizer sector is developing a sectoral decarbonization approach to enable fertilizer companies to set science-based emissions reduction targets. This report will act as an important resource to guide industry’s long-term sustainability strategy. In 2021, the International Energy Agency’s Ammonia Technology Roadmap showed pathways to lower emissions in fertilizer production (IFA and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development provided support). The Reducing Emissions from Fertilizer Use report highlights actions to scale up to cut scope 3 emissions – the indirect emission that occur in companies’ value chains.

The fertilizer industry recognizes that an efficient transition to economy-wide, net-zero emissions is the only way to limit global warming. Around the world, fertilizer companies are already implementing measures to reduce GHG emissions from their operations and adopt near-zero-emission technologies. Setting out a deliverable decarbonization program for the sector will help the leading companies press ahead while demonstrating potential models for other companies.

Ultimately, it’s about making progress on environmental goals while helping to feed a growing world.

Updated September 20, 2022