No-tillage (NT) management has been promoted as a practice capable of offsetting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions because of its ability to sequester carbon in soils. However, true mitigation is only possible if the overall impact of NT adoption reduces the net global warming potential (GWP) determined by fluxes of the three major biogenic GHGs (i.e. CO2, N2O, and CH4). We compiled all available data of soil-derived GHG emission comparisons between conventional tilled (CT) and NT systems for humid and dry temperate climates. Newly converted NT systems increase GWP relative to CT practices, in both humid and dry climate regimes, and longer-term adoption (>10 years) only significantly reduces GWP in humid climates. Mean cumulative GWP over a 20-year period is also reduced under continuous NT in dry areas, but with a high degree of uncertainty. Emissions of N2O drive much of the trend in net GWP, suggesting improved nitrogen management is essential to realize the full benefit from carbon storage in the soil for purposes of global warming mitigation. Our results indicate a strong time dependency in the GHG mitigation potential of NT agriculture, demonstrating that GHG mitigation by adoption of NT is much more variable and complex than previously considered, and policy plans to reduce global warming through this land management practice need further scrutiny to ensure success.
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