Cropland intensification mediates the radiative balance of greenhouse gas emissions and soil carbon sequestration in maize systems of sub-Saharan Africa

Jinsen Zheng, Alberto Canarini, Kazumichi Fujii, William N. Mmari, Method M. Kilasara, Shinya Funakawa.


Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) must undertake proper cropland intensification for higher crop yields while minimizing climate impacts. Unfortunately, no studies have simultaneously quantified greenhouse gas (GHG; CO2, CH4, and N2O) emissions and soil organic carbon (SOC) change in SSA croplands, leaving it a blind spot in the accounting of global warming potential (GWP). Here, based on 2-year field monitoring of soil emissions of CO2, CH4, and N2O, as well as SOC changes in two contrasting soil types (sandy vs. clayey), we provided the first, full accounting of GWP for maize systems in response to cropland intensifications (increasing nitrogen rates and in combination with crop residue return) in SSA. To corroborate our field observations on SOC change (i.e., 2-year, a short duration), we implemented a process-oriented model parameterized with field data to simulate SOC dynamic over time. We further tested the generality of our findings by including a literature synthesis of SOC change across maize-based systems in SSA. We found that nitrogen application reduced SOC loss, likely through increased biomass yield and consequently belowground carbon allocation. Residue return switched the direction of SOC change from loss to gain; such a benefit (SOC sequestration) was not compromised by CH4 emissions (negligible) nor outweighed by the amplified N2O emissions, and contributed to negative net GWP. Overall, we show encouraging results that, combining residue and fertilizer-nitrogen input allowed for sequestering 82–284 kg of CO2-eq per Mg of maize grain produced across two soils. All analyses pointed to an advantage of sandy over clayey soils in achieving higher SOC sequestration targets, and thus call for a re-evaluation on the potential of sandy soils in SOC sequestration across SSA croplands. Our findings carry important implications for developing viable intensification practices for SSA croplands in mitigating climate change while securing food production.