Study finds nitrous oxide emissions grew 40% from 1980-2020, greatly accelerating climate change

June 12, 2024
Graph taken from the journal article, "Global Nitrous Oxide Budget 2024."

Emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide or methane, continued unabated between 1980 and 2020, a year when more than 10-million metric tons were released into the atmosphere primarily through farming practices, according to a new report by the Global Carbon Project.

Agricultural production accounted for 74 percent of human-driven nitrous oxide emissions in the 2010s – attributed primarily to the use of commercial fertilizers and animal waste on croplands – according to the report “Global Nitrous Oxide Budget 2024,” led by researchers at Boston College, co-authored by University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) Professor Eric Davidson, and published in the journal Earth System Science Data.

"Nitrous oxide is sort of the forgotten greenhouse gas," said Davidson. "In addition to being an important, potent, long-lived gas that contributes significantly to climate change, it also destroys the protective ozone layer in the stratosphere. This paper, from a large, international, and interdisciplinary team, demonstrates that N2O emissions are increasing unabated, mostly from agriculture, but also from industries that could be cutting their emissions with existing and affordable technology."

In an era when greenhouse gas emissions must decline to reduce global warming, in 2020 and 2021 nitrous oxide flowed into the atmosphere at a faster rate than at any other time in history. On Earth, excess nitrogen contributes to soil, water and air pollution. In the atmosphere, it depletes the ozone layer and exacerbates climate change. Agricultural emissions reached 8 million metric tons in 2020, a 67 percent increase from the 4.8 million metric tons released in 1980, according to the study.

"Nitrous oxide emissions from human activities must decline in order to limit global temperature rise to 2°C as established by the Paris Agreement," said Hanqin Tian, a Boston College Professor and lead author on the study. "Reducing nitrous oxide emissions is the only solution since at this point no technologies exist that can remove nitrous oxide from the atmosphere."

In 2022, the concentration of atmospheric nitrous oxide reached 336 parts per billion, a 25 percent increase over pre-industrial levels that far outpaces predictions previously developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"This emission increase is taking place when the global greenhouse gasses should be rapidly declining towards net zero emissions if we have any chances to avoid the worst effects of climate change," Tian said.


UMCES Professor, Eric Davidson.

The world’s farmers used 60 million metric tons of commercial nitrogen fertilizers in 1980. By 2020, the sector used 107 million metric tons. That same year, animal manure contributed 101 million metric tons for a combined 2020 usage of 208 million metric tons. The unfettered increase in a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential approximately 300 times larger than carbon dioxide, presents dire consequences for the planet. Drawing on millions of nitrous oxide measurements taken during the past four decades on land and in the atmosphere, freshwater systems, and the ocean, the researchers have generated the most comprehensive assessment of global nitrous oxide to date.

The team examined data collected from around the world for all major economic activities that lead to nitrous oxide emissions and reported on 18 anthropogenic and natural sources and three absorbent 'sinks' of global nitrous oxide. The top 10 nitrous oxide emission-producing countries are: China, India, the United States, Brazil, Russia, Pakistan, Australia, Indonesia, Turkey and Canada, the study found.

Some countries have seen success implementing policies and practices to reduce nitrous oxide emissions, according to the report. Emissions in China have slowed since the mid 2010s; as have emissions in Europe during the past few decades. In the U.S., agricultural emissions continue to creep up while industrial emissions have declined slightly, leaving overall emissions rather flat.

The Global Carbon Project

Established in 2001, the Global Carbon Project analyzes the impact of human activity on greenhouse gas emissions and Earth systems, producing global budgets for the three dominant greenhouse gasses – carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – that assess emissions and sinks to inform further research, policy, and international action. Improved practices in agriculture around the use of nitrogen fertilizers and animal manure will help to address and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution.

"While there have been some successful nitrogen reduction initiatives in different regions, we found an acceleration in the rate of nitrous oxide accumulation in the atmosphere in this decade," said Global Carbon Project Executive Director Josep Canadell, who is also a research scientist at CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency. "The growth rates of atmospheric nitrous oxide in 2020 and 2021 were higher than any previous observed year and more than 30 percent higher than the average rate of increase in the previous decade."

More frequent assessments are needed to ensure mitigation efforts target  high-emission regions and economic activities. An improved inventory of sources and sinks will be required if progress is going to be made toward the objectives of the Paris Agreement.