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Using cover crops to mitigate and adapt to climate change. A review

Jason P. Kaye, Miguel Quemada

Cover crops have long been touted for their ability to reduce erosion, fix atmospheric nitrogen, reduce nitrogen leaching, and improve soil health. In recent decades, there has been resurgence in cover crop adoption that is synchronous with a heightened awareness of climate change. Climate change mitigation and adaptation may be additional, important ecosystem services provided by cover crops, but they lie outside of the traditional list of cover cropping benefits. Here, we review the potential for cover crops to mitigate climate change by tallying all of the positive and negative impacts of cover crops on the net global warming potential of agricultural fields. Then, we use lessons learned from two contrasting regions to evaluate how cover crops affect adaptive management for precipitation and temperature change. Three key outcomes from this synthesis are (1) Cover crop effects on greenhouse gas fluxes typically mitigate warming by ~100 to 150 g CO2 e/m2/year, which is higher than mitigation from transitioning to no-till. The most important terms in the budget are soil carbon sequestration and reduced fertilizer use after legume cover crops. (2) The surface albedo change due to cover cropping, calculated for the first time here using case study sites in central Spain and Pennsylvania, USA, may mitigate 12 to 46 g CO2 e/m2/year over a 100-year time horizon. And (3) Cover crop management can also enable climate change adaptation at these case study sites, especially through reduced vulnerability to erosion from extreme rain events, increased soil water management options during droughts or periods of soil saturation, and retention of nitrogen mineralized due to warming. Overall, we found very few tradeoffs between cover cropping and climate change mitigation and adaptation, suggesting that ecosystem services that are traditionally expected from cover cropping can be promoted synergistically with services related to climate change.