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Addressing climate change is a global imperative with broad support. However, most conversations are only focused on reducing methane and carbon dioxide (CO2). While important, this focus overlooks the urgent need to also address nitrous oxide (N2O), a pollutant 10 times more potent than methane and 300 times more potent than CO2.  If we wish to effectively and aggressively combat climate change, then positioning N2O avoidance at the forefront of the dialogue is critical.

Nitrous oxide emissions sources.

According to the EPA, N20 can remain in the atmosphere for 100 years. This is a serious challenge when you consider a recent study published in Nature that found nitrous oxide emissions from human activities have gone up by 30% since 1980.  Another research paper, “Ten new insights in climate science 2021”, published by leading global climate experts, indicated that the use of nitrogen fertilizers, including organic fertilizer from livestock manure, caused over 70% of global N2O emissions in the recent decade (2007–2016). As the demand on the agricultural sector increases to accommodate the growing population, these statistics paint a bleak picture for the future of our climate. The good news is that there are technologies available today to address this challenge and reduce N20.

How to solve nitrous oxide problems.

The Wall Street Journal points out that over the past three years multipurpose, government satellites have been accurately spotting emissions. Given today’s technology with this satellite data, combined with tower-based sensors and airborne monitoring, the proper quantification and long-term monitoring of N2O is feasible. However, funding for these long-term methane and N2O monitoring platforms needs to become a sustained commitment as opposed to “one-off” projects.

Accurate modeling of N2O emissions and avoidance is also now available using Nitrogen Utilization Efficiency (NUE) metrics supported by rigorous data collection in the air, on the ground, and from space.  Global data sharing agreements among governments – which should be a topic during COP26 – would further accelerate science-based conclusions that enable thoughtful climate change solutions especially for the agriculture sector. The U.S. and other governments must create incentives for farmers and ag-tech companies to take advantage of these technologies and further enhance global sustainable agriculture.

There are other immediate opportunities for short-term climate gains, too. Aside from curbing N2O emissions through consistent monitoring and regulation, organized carbon markets are the single most impactful tool that governments should be enabling.  In the U.S., carbon markets have been limited to state-by-state implementation or nongovernmental organizations, leading to unique and dispersed market action. The federal government has tremendous resources such as data analytics, technical expertise, and technology that would catalyze integrated private carbon markets. Expansion of the Investment Tax Credit to include other renewable energy sources like biogas is another avenue.  Expanding the 45Q tax credit program to more explicitly address soil carbon capture from the agricultural sector would facilitate even greater carbon reduction volumes.

Climate change facts.

For those still skeptical, it’s no longer just about our environment. The New York Times recently published an article about the threat to national security induced by climate change effects, like food shortages, heat, drought, altered migration patterns, and increased competition in the Arctic. We must take a holistic approach to address climate change by reducing not just CO2 and methane, but also N2O before it’s too late.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group report raised the profile of nitrous oxide emissions. But government officials and private industry need to elevate the conversation further. Let’s seize the opportunity to address nitrous oxide, methane, and carbon dioxide in one fell swoop while all the attention is focused on our climate crisis. COP26 and the continued emphasis on addressing climate change presents a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity for governments and private industry to alter our climate future by including nitrous oxide emission reduction in its plans.

[email protected] Spangler Thomas