Industrial Nitrous Oxide Emissions Could Be Easily Mitigated

Humanity has the knowledge and resources to deal with climate change; what we lack is the “political will”, which means power in the hands of those who want do do that. This has become something of a mantra for me, because the idea that we need to do more research before we can deal with our greenhouse gas emissions has been annoyingly persistent. Normally, when I talk about this, it’s about energy production, infrastructure, and adaptation, but today it’s about number three on the greenhouse gas list – nitrous oxide. A research team from the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science has concluded that it would actually be pretty straightforward to mostly eliminate industrial nitrous oxide emissions:

Researchers have found that one method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 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 applied to industrial sources.

“The urgency of climate change requires that all greenhouse gas emissions be abated as quickly as is technologically and economically feasible,” said lead author Eric Davidson, a professor with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “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.”

When greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, they trap the heat from the sun, leading to a warming planet. In terms of emissions, nitrous oxide is third among greenhouse gases, topped only by carbon dioxide and methane. Also known as laughing gas, it has a global warming potential nearly 300 times that of carbon dioxide and stays in the atmosphere for more than 100 years. It also destroys the protective ozone layer in the stratosphere, so reducing nitrous oxide emissions provides a double benefit for the environment and humanity.

Nitrous oxide concentration in the atmosphere has increased at an accelerating rate in recent decades, mostly from increasing agricultural emissions, which contribute about two-thirds of the global human-caused nitrous oxide. However, agricultural sources are challenging to reduce. In contrast, for the industry and energy sectors, low-cost technologies already exist to reduce nitrous oxide emissions to nearly zero.

Industrial nitrous oxide emissions from the chemical industry are primarily by-products from the production of adipic acid (used in the production of nylon) and nitric acid (used to make nitrogen fertilizers, adipic acid, and explosives). Emissions also come from fossil fuel combustion used in manufacturing and 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,” said co-author Wilfried Winiwarter of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. “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.”

Turns out we do have the political will, at least in some areas. I think it’s worth noting, based on my introduction, that more research is needed for eliminating emissions from things like agriculture, but for those who are new around here, I’m also of the opinion that we should be dramatically changing how we produce food, because continuing to rely on seasonal weather patterns at this stage is a recipe for famine. Still, it’s great to hear that efforts are being made to actually pick this low-hanging fruit. The more progress that’s made on this, the slower the climate will warm. It might not feel slower, but there’s no question that it will be.

It turns out that a lot of what needs to be done is very much within reach, for those controlling the levers of power. Some of those powerful people are actually taking some action, and for the others, well, they should be removed from power, and replaced with people who serve something other than profit. Better yet, maybe we could stop giving individuals so much power to begin with. Regardless, while there is a terrifying amount of work to be done, I find it just a little comforting to know that it is work that’s very much doable.

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