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Nitrous oxide emissions have increased at an unprecedented rate 

A recent study conducted by the Global Carbon Project has revealed that emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, continued unabated from 1980 to 2020. In 2020 alone, over 10 million metric tons of nitrous oxide were released, primarily due to agricultural practices. 

The study, published in the journal Earth System Science Data, indicates that 74% of these emissions in the 2010s came from farming, specifically from the use of chemical fertilizers and animal waste on croplands.

Nitrous oxide and global warming 

According to the report “Global Nitrous Oxide Budget 2024,” led by researchers from Boston College, nitrous oxide emissions increased at an unprecedented rate during 2020 and 2021, highlighting the urgent need for reducing these emissions to combat global warming. 

On Earth, excess nitrogen contributes to soil, water, and air pollution, while in the atmosphere, it depletes the ozone layer and exacerbates climate change.

“Nitrous oxide emissions from human activities must decline in order to limit global temperature rise to 2°C as established by the Paris Agreement,” said lead author Hanqin Tian, a professor of global sustainability at Boston College. 

“Reducing nitrous oxide emissions is the only solution since at this point no technologies exist that can remove nitrous oxide from the atmosphere.”

Increased use of nitrogen fertilizers 

The study reveals a significant increase in the use of nitrogen fertilizers, which rose from 60 million metric tons in 1980 to 107 million metric tons in 2020. Additionally, animal manure contributed 101 million metric tons in 2020, leading to a combined total of 208 million metric tons. 

This unchecked rise in nitrous oxide, with a global warming potential 300 times larger than carbon dioxide, poses dire consequences for the planet.

Millions of nitrous oxide measurements 

The researchers analyzed millions of nitrous oxide measurements taken over four decades from various sources, making this the most comprehensive assessment of global nitrous oxide emissions and sinks to date. 

The team examined data from all major economic activities leading to nitrous oxide emissions and reported on 18 anthropogenic and natural sources and three absorbent sinks.

The top 10 nitrous oxide-emitting countries identified in the study are China, India, the United States, Brazil, Russia, Pakistan, Australia, Indonesia, Turkey, and Canada.

While some regions, like China and Europe, have successfully implemented policies to reduce emissions, others, including the U.S., continue to see a rise in agricultural emissions.

Need for improved agricultural practices 

Josep Canadell, Global Carbon Project Executive Director and a research scientist at CSIRO, emphasized the need for improved agricultural practices and more frequent assessments to target high-emission regions. 

“The growth rates of atmospheric nitrous oxide in 2020 and 2021 were higher than any previous observed year and more than 30 percent higher than the average rate of increase in the previous decade,” he warned.

To effectively mitigate nitrous oxide emissions, it is crucial to adopt strategies that limit the use of nitrogen fertilizers and manage animal waste better, the authors concluded.

Sources of nitrous oxide emissions 

The largest sources of nitrous oxide emissions are primarily from agricultural activities, including the use of synthetic and organic fertilizers and manure management. Industrial processes, such as the production of nitric acid and adipic acid, also contribute significantly. 

Fossil fuel combustion in vehicles and power plants, biomass burning including forest fires and agricultural waste burning, and residential wood burning are additional sources. 

Waste management practices, such as the decomposition of organic waste in landfills and wastewater treatment, also release nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.

Dangers of nitrous oxide emissions 

Nitrous oxide (N₂O) emissions pose significant environmental and health risks. As a potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide has a global warming potential approximately 300 times greater than that of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, contributing significantly to climate change. 

UV radiation 

Additionally, nitrous oxide is a major contributor to the depletion of the ozone layer, which protects living organisms from harmful ultraviolet radiation

The increased UV exposure due to ozone layer depletion can lead to higher incidences of skin cancer, cataracts, and other health issues in humans, as well as adverse effects on ecosystems and wildlife. 

Ground-level ozone

Furthermore, nitrous oxide is involved in the formation of ground-level ozone, a harmful air pollutant that can cause respiratory problems and other health issues in humans, as well as damage crops and other vegetation. 

Reducing nitrous oxide emissions is therefore crucial for protecting both the environment and public health.


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