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Press release: Agricultural Nitrous oxide emissions are an increasing climate threat, finds latest study

Global emissions of nitrous oxide, the third most important greenhouse gas and largest remaining threat to the ozone layer, have increased by 30% since 1980, according to a new analysis published by an international team of researchers in Nature. The study titled “A comprehensive quantification of global nitrous oxide sources and sinks,” is based on the latest estimates of global nitrous oxide emissions by a collaboration between International Nitrogen Initiative (INI) and Global Carbon Project of Future Earth, a partner of the World Climate Research Programme’

Climate change is not all about carbon: nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in the long run. “Each of the past four decades has had higher global nitrous oxide emissions than the last, and overall, agricultural activities have dominated the growth in emissions” while the net industrial emissions remained stable, concluded the article by 57 scientists from 48 research institutions in 14 countries. Overall, 43% of nitrous oxide emissions are from anthropogenic sources, it says.

“This is the most comprehensive study of global nitrous oxide emissions ever published, as it combines both natural and anthropogenic (man-made) sources,” said Nandula Raghuram, Chair of the International Nitrogen Initiative (INI) and Professor of Biotechnology at GGS Indraprastha University, New Delhi. “Right now, our emissions trajectory is higher than even the worst-case scenario anticipated.” added David Kanter, Vice Chair of INI and Assistant Professor at New York University. They feel that it is possible to slow down these emissions if countries implement the 2019 UN resolution on ‘sustainable nitrogen management. India led the first ever nitrogen resolution adopted in the 4th UN Environment Assembly with the help of INI, the leading global science-policy platform for reactive nitrogen.

 “The good news is that there are well-established practices and technologies to mitigate nitrous oxide emissions. Industrial and agricultural policies in Europe reduced such emissions considerably. Still, further efforts will be required, in Europe as well as globally,” said Wilfried Winiwarter, a co-author of the study and a member of the INI steering committee. “Moreover, reducing greenhouse gas emissions also has the co-benefits of reduced air and water pollution”.

“The growing demand for food and feed for animals will further increase global nitrous oxide emissions. There is a conflict between the way we are feeding people and stabilizing the climate” said the lead author professor Hanqin Tian, director of the International Center for Climate and Global Change Research at Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, Alabama, USA.

The International Nitrogen Initiative highlights the role of reactive nitrogen as an essential resource and major environmental threat. INI seeks to optimize nitrogen’s beneficial role in food production while staying within nitrogen’s planetary boundary to safeguard the environment and human health.

Link to paper: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2780-0

Graphic caption:

The global nitrous oxide budget for 2007–2016. The coloured arrows represent nitrous oxide fluxes (in Tg N yr−1 for 2007–2016) as follows: yellow, emissions from anthropogenic sources (agriculture and waste water, biomass burning, fossil fuel and industry, and indirect emission); Green, emissions from natural sources; Blue, atmospheric chemical sink; Other fluxes: Lightning and atmospheric production, soil surface sink, climate change, increasing CO2, deforestation. Sources: modified from Tian et al. 2020, Nature; Global Carbon Project (GCP) and International Nitrogen Initiative (INI).

For details, contact: Wilfried Winiwarter (winiwart@iiasa.ac.at) or Nandula Raghuram (raghuram@ipu.ac.in)

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