Nitrogen oxide emissions are rising as demand for fertilizers and meat grows – but there are answers

The role of food in climate change has turn out to be certainly one of the important thing challenges of our time. The journey of a steak, fruit or salad from the vast agricultural fields to the plates on our tables leaves a major footprint on the environment.

At the center of this challenge are the big use of fertilizers and the increasing demand for meat from a growing world population.

As Earth, climate And atmospheric scientistWe are tracking global greenhouse gas emissions and have just most comprehensive assessment to this point a strong greenhouse gas from food production: nitrous oxide or N₂O.

After carbon dioxide and methane, N₂O is probably the most impactful greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere by humans. Although there’s less N₂O within the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it’s 300 times more planet-warming and stays within the atmosphere for over a century, trapping heat. Today, atmospheric N₂O levels are approx. 25% higher than before the Industrial Revolution, and their numbers proceed to rise at an increasing rate.

A graph with a series of data points going back nearly 200 years shows that atmospheric N2O levels remained relatively stable until the 19th century, when they began to rise rapidly and continue to do so.
The concentration of N₂O within the atmosphere remained relatively constant until the nineteenth century, after which it began to rise rapidly. Measured in Antarctic ice cores (green) and by modern measurements (red).

We have found that fertilizers and livestock manure handling are accountable for the rise in N₂O emissions and their rapid accumulation within the atmosphere worldwide. This is greater than only a climate problem. N₂O destroys the ozone layerwhich protects people from harmful solar radiation. And nitrogen runoff from fields pollutes waterways, promotes harmful algal blooms and creates oxygen-poor dead zones.

The increase in N₂O emissions is worrying, but people now have the knowledge and most of the technologies needed to reverse this trend.

Where do N₂O emissions come from?

Before the economic revolution, natural N₂O sources were Microbes that live in forest soils and within the oceans corresponded roughly to the natural sinks that consumed N₂O within the air, in order that atmospheric N₂O concentrations remained relatively constant.

However, the world population and its food needs have grown so rapidly that this natural balance has been upset.

We found that human activities alone have increased N₂O emissions by 40% over the past 4 many years, with agriculture contributing about 74% of total anthropogenic N₂O emissions.

The largest man-made sources of N₂O are agriculture, industry, and the burning of forests and agricultural waste.

The global N2O budget map shows the emission sources
Annual N₂O emission sources and changes in the last decade 2010–2019. Measured in million tonnes.
Global Carbon Project, From

One of the most important causes is the nitrogen fertilizers widely utilized in agriculture. Worldwide, they’re accountable for 70% of all agricultural N₂O emissions. Animal droppings from intensive livestock farming contributes about 30%. A smaller but rapidly growing source is Aquaculture, akin to fish farmingparticularly in China, where it has increased twenty-five-fold over the past 40 years.

In addition to agriculture, industrial processes akin to Production of nylonExplosives and fertilizers in addition to the combustion of fossil fuels also contribute to N₂O emissions, but to a lesser extent than agriculture.

N₂O emissions by country

For various social, economic, agricultural and political reasons, emissions vary considerably from country to country.

Emerging economies akin to China and India have seen a pointy increase in nitrogen dioxide emissions over the past 4 many years as they increased their agricultural productivity to fulfill their the food needs of a growing population.

China is the most important producer and users of chemical fertilizers. The Action Plan for Zero Growth in Fertilizer Use by 2020 published in 2015 has contributed to the reduction of N₂O emissionsHowever, industrial N₂O emissions are continued to rise.

In Brazil and Indonesia, the clearing and burning of forests to make way for crops and livestock, along with increasingly intensive agriculture, has led to increased nitrogen losses from natural sources and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Africa has the chance to extend food production without increasing nitrogen fertilization. However, North African countries have greater than its emissions growth tripled over the past twenty years, mainly on account of significant growth in livestock populations in Africa.

However, some regions have succeeded in reducing a few of their N₂O emissions through more sustainable practices.

The European Union, Japan and South Korea have all Successful reduction of anthropogenic N₂O emissions Although they’re still the most important emitters worldwide over the past 40 years, they’re primarily lively within the chemical industry. The reductions within the Nineteen Nineties are largely on account of nitrogen use in agriculture. However, there remains to be room for improvement. Emissions from direct fertilization and manure application have declined only barely and have recently stabilized.

In the US, emissions from agriculture proceed to rise, while emissions from industry have declined barely. total emissions remain largely unchanged.

How to cut back N₂O emissions

Addressing the challenge of reducing N₂O emissions requires a mix of policy measures, technological innovations and individual actions. For example:

The back of a tractor ejects small fertilizer pellets, about the size of peas.
A tractor spreads fertilizer on a field. Precision farming techniques can reduce fertilizer use and the chance of runoff into waterways.
fotokostic/iStock/Getty Images Plus
  • Likewise, innovations in Livestock farmingakin to dietary supplements and improved waste management practices, can reduce the quantity of N₂O in cattle.

  • Industry, especially nylon and fertilizer production, can install existing, inexpensive technologies to cut back just about all of their N₂O emissions. This is a straightforward win for implementation and the climate. Most of the world has already done this, so China and the USA responsible for the vast majority of remaining industrial N₂O emissions.

  • Consumers also can Plant-based foods account for a bigger proportion of your weight loss program. You don't should go vegan unless you must, but reducing the frequency and portion size of meat and dairy consumption might be healthy for each you and the environment. Environmentally friendly practices like composting food waste and reducing fertilizer use on lawns also help.

Overall, a holistic approach combining policy, technology and individual actions is required to cut back N₂O emissions and combat climate change. If governments, industry and residents work together towards a sustainable future, these strategies can assist ensure food security and environmental sustainability for future generations.

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