Metrics for evaluating climate smart technologies in agriculture are broken

Dr. Fatma Kaplan
6 min readFeb 13, 2024

Pesticides’ carbon footprint is massively underestimated. We need better metrics for innovative technologies.

Crop protection does not have one big bad wolf pesticide like fertilizers’ nitrogen. According to (1, 2) “Manure and synthetic fertilizers emit the equivalent of 2.6 gigatons of carbon per year -more than global aviation and shipping combined.” For impact and climate investors going after one big problem with a significant impact is a no brainer. Calculating reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in terms of gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) is easy because there are many publications and market reports available for climate and impact investors (3). Nitrogen alone cannot solve agriculture’s carbon emission problem because the bigger problem, crop protection, is overlooked and underestimated.

Crop protection has many medium size wolves which collectively create more CO2e emissions than nitrogen. Furthermore, GHG emissions produced by pesticides are massively underreported for the following reasons (4).

1- CO2e emissions for a kg of pesticide is calculated in terms of active ingredients, but the formulated pesticides that are applied to the field include other chemicals that can make up 50–70% of the product (4). This creates a massive underestimation because any calculation based on active ingredients omits 50–70% of the potential emissions, meaning 0.3–0.5 gigaton is more like 1 gigaton. If it is less than a gigaton, it gives the impression of insignificant.

2- Ninety-nine % of all synthetic pesticides or their precursors come from fossil fuels. The microplastic coating for slow release also comes from fossil fuels (4). GHG emissions from making precursors or microplastic coatings do not even make it into the calculations for GHG emissions.

3- Data on post pesticide application emissions as CO2e is hard to come by. Not all pesticides are equal in terms of GHG emissions. For example, some soil fumigants themselves are GHG emitters and some non-fumigant pesticides also release substantial amounts of greenhouse gas.

4- The indirect effect of pesticide applications on GHG emissions includes interacting with organisms in the soil. For…