Why Laughing Gas Is No Laughing Matter For The Environment

laughing gasWhy Laughing Gas Is No Laughing Matter For The Environment

Carbon dioxide is the “face” of the greenhouse gases, but nitrous oxide (N2O) merits its own spotlight. The same “laughing gas” once used by dentists as an anaesthetic and used today by people looking for a quick, giggly high, turns out to be pretty bad for the environment.

Nitrous oxide (a molecule made of two nitrogen atoms and an oxygen atom) is over 300 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 and accounts for 6.3% of all UK greenhouse gas emissions. If nations are to meet their climate change targets, they need to pay attention to N2O.

While the gas is best known for its recreational uses, most of it is actually generated through farming, where microbes in the soil combine oxygen (from the air) and nitrogen (added to farmland) to create new compounds. This results in the leaking of N2O gas from the soil. As more nitrogen is added to the soil more N2O is emitted, so the best way to manage emissions is to control the nitrogen added via synthetic fertilisers, manures and slurries.

This century, the world faces a challenge to supply enough nitrogen to maximise crop yields while reducing the release of excess nitrogen into the surrounding environment as pollution. It’s an issue I looked at in a recent report for the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology.

Nitrogen is an essential element for life, but it is mostly present as an unreactive gas, dinitrogen (N2), which only a few organisms can use directly. Agriculture was revolutionised in the early 20th century when the large-scale industrial synthesis of nitrogen fertiliser became possible. Food production increased and population growth followed; but huge amounts of nitrogen have subsequently been added to soils and the increase of N2O emissions is the inevitable result.

There are some scientific developments which could help to reduce nitrogen emissions while maintaining crop yields and so global food production levels. A few are listed here.

Instead of applying fertilisers equally across a field, precision farming allows farmers to fine-tune the location and amount of fertiliser spread by machines. This is based on soil and plant condition measurements and associated software-generated maps – optimising the yield and reducing fertiliser waste (pollution) and cost. In 2012, 20% of English farms used soil mapping to optimise fertiliser applications.

Plants could be bred to enable a reduction in nitrogen fertiliser. Most commercial plant breeding focuses on maximising crop yields under optimal plant growth conditions, which include a requirement for high levels of nitrogen (usually delivered via fertilisers). Some researchers have argued for programmes which focus on breeding plants that perform better under lower nitrogen conditions.

The final option is further away from realisation: the crops' genetics can be altered to reduce the need for nitrogen fertilisers. Some plants such as legumes (e.g. clover and beans) work with bacteria to convert unreactive N2 from the air into a form that is available to the plant. Scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have recently begun research that aims to transfer this capability into cereal crops.

These research efforts are part of an international focus to sustainably intensify agricultural production: increasing yields without adversely affecting the environment or cultivating more land. Nitrous oxide is critical to the debate on climate change, which means that farming is too.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation
Read the original article.

About The Author

brockett bethBeth Brockett is a PhD student, Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University. She is using an interdisciplinary tool box to explore new ways of thinking about, planning for and enacting the farm environment or agri-environment on extensive livestock farms in the English Lake District. Applying mixed methods mapping using Geographical Information Systems is an exciting way of integrating physical and social, quantitative and qualitative forms of information.

English Afrikaans Arabic Chinese (Simplified) Chinese (Traditional) Dutch Filipino French German Hindi Indonesian Italian Japanese Korean Malay Persian Portuguese Russian Spanish Swahili Swedish Thai Turkish Urdu Vietnamese

LATEST VIDEOS

Jay Inslee Tells Hayes That He Wants To Gut The Filibuster To Fight Climate Change
by MSNBC
Washington Governor Jay Inslee is running for president on the single issue of climate change and argues that doing…
Causes and Effects of Climate Change
by National Geographic
What causes climate change (also known as global warming)? And what are the effects of climate change? Learn the human…
Extreme Weather and Global Warming
by NASA Goddard
Is the frequency of extreme weather events a sign that global warming is gaining pace and exceeding predictions? Bill…
Thanks to Climate Change, Wet Winters No Match for Drier California Summers
by KPIX CBS SF Bay Area
If the emerald-green hills around Northern California have you thinking recent rains have put a damper on the fire…
Climate Change Is Not One Issue
by MSNBC
"Climate change is not one issue," said David Wallace-Wells, author of "The Uninhabitable Earth," but is…
The Heat: Climate change
by CGTN America
Images gathered by NASA show an increase in foliage in China and India. The greening effect is mainly due to ambitious…
No company is doing enough to combat climate change: Jeremy Grantham
by CNBC Television
Jeremy Grantham, co-founder of GMO, on climate change and what needs to be done to combat it.
Power Plants Are POISONING Groundwater All Over America
by The Ring of Fire
According to a new report, 90% of coal-fired power plants across the country have completely contaminated the…

LATEST ARTICLES

Default Image
Come on, UK weather forecasters – tell it like it is on climate change
by Adam Corner
They have a national reach that most climate campaigners would die for. They are familiar and respected experts on the…
Green New Deal: 6 places already reducing emissions from buildings
Green New Deal: 6 places already reducing emissions from buildings
by David Roberts
One of the elements of the Green New Deal resolution that has caused the most consternation among critics on the right…
Default Image
UK environmentalists target Barclays in fossil fuels campaign
by Matthew Taylor
A UK-wide campaign is being launched to persuade one of the country’s biggest high street banks to stop investing…
Oceanic carbon uptake could falter
Oceanic carbon uptake could falter
by Tim Radford
What does oceanic carbon uptake achieve? Greenhouse gas that sinks below the waves slows global warming a little and…
Britain (Yes, Rainy Britain) Could Run Short of Water by 2050, Official Says
Britain (Yes, Rainy Britain) Could Run Short of Water by 2050, Official Says
by Global Warming & Climate Change
“Climate change plus growth equals an existential threat,” Mr. Bevan said. To avoid severe water shortages, he added,…
Default Image
Record high US temperatures outpace record lows two to one, study finds
by Associated Press
Over the past 20 years, Americans have been twice as likely to sweat through record-breaking heat rather than shiver…
Climate change: Water shortages in England 'within 25 years'
Climate change: Water shortages in England 'within 25 years'
by BBC News - Science & Environment
Image copyright PA Image caption Low water levels at Wayoh Reservoir near Bolton in the UK heatwave in July 2018 Within…
Default Image
Why you'll never meet a white supremacist who cares about climate change
by Rebecca Solnit
As the news of the Christchurch mosque massacre broke and I scoured the news, I came across a map showing that the…