Demand for tools to rapidly assess greenhouse gas impacts from policy and technological change in the agricultural sector has catalyzed the development of ‘GHG calculators’— simple accounting approaches that use a mix of emission factors and empirical models to calculate GHG emissions with minimal input data. GHG calculators, however, rely on models calibrated from measurements conducted overwhelmingly under temperate, developed country conditions. Here we show that GHG calculators may poorly estimate emissions in tropical developing countries by comparing calculator predictions against measurements from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Estimates based on GHG calculators were greater than measurements in 70% of the cases, exceeding twice the measured flux nearly half the time. For 41% of the comparisons, calculators incorrectly predicted whether emissions would increase or decrease with a change in management. These results raise concerns about applying GHG calculators to tropical farming systems and emphasize the need to broaden the scope of the underlying data.