A team of scientists has recently identified a method that is able to successfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions and is available, affordable, and capable of being implemented right now. Nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas and ozone-depleting substance, could be readily abated with existing technology.
The urgency of climate change requires that all greenhouse gas emissions be abated as quickly as is technologically and economically feasible. Limiting nitrous oxide in an agricultural context is complicated, but mitigating it in industry is affordable and available right now. Here is a low-hanging fruit that we can pluck quickly.
Eric Davidson, Study Lead Author and Professor, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science
When greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere, they trap heat from the sun, causing the planet to warm. Nitrous oxide ranks third among greenhouse gases in terms of emissions, with only carbon dioxide and methane ranking above it.
Nitrous oxide has a global warming potential nearly 300 times that of carbon dioxide and can stay in the atmosphere for more than 100 years.
As it also depletes the protective ozone layer in the stratosphere, efforts to reduce the amount of nitrous oxide emissions will be both beneficial to the environment and humanity.
Nitrous oxide concentrations in the atmosphere have risen at an alarming rate in recent decades, owing primarily to rising agricultural emissions, which account for roughly two-thirds of all human-caused nitrous oxide. However, reducing agricultural sources is difficult.
In contrast, low-cost technologies exist to reduce nitrous oxide emissions to near zero in the industrial and energy sectors.
The chemical industry’s industrial nitrous oxide emissions are mainly byproducts of the production of adipic acid (used in the production of nylon) and nitric acid (used to make nitrogen fertilizers, adipic acid, and explosives). Emissions are also produced by the combustion of fossil fuels in manufacturing and the internal combustion engines used in cars and trucks.
We know that abatement is feasible and affordable. The European Union’s emissions trading system made it financially attractive to companies to remove nitrous oxide emissions in all adipic acid and nitric acid plants. The German government is also helping to fund abatement of nitrous oxide emissions from nitric acid plants in several low-income and middle-income countries.
Wilfried Winiwarter, Study Co-Author, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
Consumer preferences for purchasing climate-friendly products may encourage the private sector to play a major role in reducing nitrous oxide emissions. For instance, passenger cars and light vehicles account for 65% of the nitrous emissions embodied in nylon products globally.
Automobile manufacturers could soon require supply chains to source nylon exclusively from plants that deploy efficient nitrous oxide abatement technology.
Davidson, E. A., & Winiwarter, W. (2023). Urgent abatement of industrial sources of nitrous oxide. Nature Climate Change. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-023-01723-3.