We’ve heard a lot about the greenhouse gas CO2 and climate change. And probably methane too. Yeah, yeah, fossil fuels and cow farts. Destroying the planet, warming the atmosphere. Renewable energy, eat less beef. Got it.
But we aren’t hearing much about N2O, an extremely potent, long-lasting greenhouse gas that is 300x more effective at trapping heat than CO2, hangs around for a century, and is inextricably linked to the way we get our food.
Turns out, this molecule is fiercely on the rise, and is threatening to blow our worst-case climate change scenarios out of the water.
That means we don’t have until 2100. That means the frightening 2 degree rise in temperature that could throw our planet into a positive feedback loop of catastrophe is a lot sooner than we had thought. Because of our food system.
the down and dirty on no2
- Synthetic fertilizer use is on the rise, and is the main driver of man-made N2O emissions
- It is 300x more effective at trapping heat than CO2; one molecule of N2O does 300x more warming than one molecule of CO2
- It is a long-term gas, meaning its impacts will be felt for 100 years
- It is entangled in our food system, making long view change difficult due to short term needs
- Agriculture contributes 70% of man-made N2O emissions
- N2O occurs naturally as well, but manmade activity has doubled it
a bad spot for a greenhouse gas
It’s bad news. Mostly because of the sector that is to blame for the emissions. It is incredibly hard to make changes in the agricultural sector. It’s our food! There are 7 billion people that need to eat for survival. Changing a survival sector for the long term is challenging when those changes impact short term survival.
what do we do about this greenhouse gas?
But, there is hope. There are a few things that can be done inside and outside the sector to combat N2O overload in our atmosphere.
reduce fertilizer use
Firstly, reducing synthetic fertilizer use is key. Our food system is highly dependent upon synthetic fertilizers, but oftentimes, they are not used efficiently.
There is an agriculture method called the 4 Rs. The right product, the right amount, at the right time, in the right place. By being more calculated in the application of fertilizer, use could be reduced up to 30%, putting a significant dent into the emissions from agriculture.
reduce other greenhouse gases
It’s more important than ever to start addressing CO2 with the solutions we already have. We need to start using them and bringing our CO2 emissions down with renewable energy. By addressing this, we leave room for NO2 while we solve the newest greenhouse gas problem. It buys us a little time to make adaptations in our food systems.
The reason we need synthetic fertilizers is because we have sucked the nutrients out of the soil through monocropping. Trying to feed a planet with over 7 billion people and accommodate a global food system has put unnatural growing methods in place.
Regenerative Agriculture is an all-around agricultural solution that addresses soil health, water retention, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and soil loss.
localize food distribution
We actually have enough food to feed the planet. It’s the system that is failing. By localizing agriculture and distribution, supporting local organic farmers, and finding channels for them to work with the local community, we can reduce monocropping, allow soil regeneration, promote organic farming methods, and reduce food waste. Reducing food waste means we can have a more efficient system that requires less overall resources, including land, water, synthetic fertilizers, energy, and distribution methods.
crop rotation and cover crops
There are certain crops that fix nitrogen into the soil, reducing the need for additional synthetic fertilizer. Crops such as vetch, clover, alfalfa, soybeans, and peanuts all capture nitrogen and pull it into the soil, providing nutrients that other plants scavenge and remove from the soil.
By rotating crops, farmers create a variety of interactions for the soil, pulling nutrients back in for one season to be removed in the future. Cover crops and nitrogen cycling are long term strategies farmers use to maintain healthy soil.
Overall, it’s not great news that this potent greenhouse gas is on the rise. But there are a lot of organizations looking to improve farming methods and global agriculture. Check out permaculture, regenerative agriculture, and maybe start growing some of your own food in your own yard using your own compost.