Easy win: Tackling Nitrous Oxide Emissions for a Sustainable Future

In the quest to find tangible solutions to climate change, researchers have turned their attention towards an underappreciated greenhouse gas: nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide, more commonly known as laughing gas, carries a global warming potential nearly 300 times that of carbon dioxide and lingers in the atmosphere for over a century. Its presence, while seemingly innocuous, is not a laughing matter.

The recent study conducted by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis illuminates an accessible, affordable, and effective avenue for mitigating the perilous effects of nitrous oxide emissions. The researchers stress that immediate action is both feasible and imperative.

Lead author Eric Davidson articulates the necessity for swift action, stating, “The urgency of climate change requires that all greenhouse gas emissions be abated as quickly as is technologically and economically feasible.” He points to a promising frontier: “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.”

Nitrous oxide has been steadily accumulating in the atmosphere, with concentrations soaring in recent decades primarily due to escalating agricultural emissions. This potent gas not only contributes to global warming but also wreaks havoc on the ozone layer, which shields our planet from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Reducing nitrous oxide emissions thus presents a dual benefit, safeguarding both the environment and humanity.

The roadblock lies in curbing agricultural sources of nitrous oxide, which have proven to be stubbornly resilient. However, a glimmer of hope emerges in the industrial sector. Industries and energy sectors can harness low-cost technologies that are already available to nearly eradicate nitrous oxide emissions.

Nitrous oxide emissions in industries primarily stem from the chemical industry – notably during the production of adipic acid (integral in creating nylon) and nitric acid (a critical component in manufacturing nitrogen fertilizers, adipic acid, and explosives). Additionally, emissions are produced through fossil fuel combustion in manufacturing processes and internal combustion engines in vehicles.

The researchers posit that both the public and private sectors have a pivotal role to play in nitrous oxide emissions abatement. Co-author Wilfried Winiwarter elucidates, “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.” He further adds, “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.”

Moreover, the private sector is primed to take the lead. With burgeoning consumer preferences for climate-friendly products, companies have an opportunity to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers. A staggering 65% of nitrous emissions in nylon products globally are utilized in passenger cars and light vehicles. The automobile industry could set new standards by mandating that their supply chains source nylon from plants that have deployed efficient nitrous oxide abatement technology.

With climate change standing as one of the most pressing issues of our time, this study highlights the importance of addressing all greenhouse gases, including the oft-overlooked nitrous oxide. Through combined efforts from the public and private sectors, we have the technology and the means to make a substantial difference. The time for action is now.

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.