Another Environment Worry: Nitrogen, a Worse Greenhouse Gas Than Carbon

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Ooh, just when you though you had your had a pretty complete list of Looming Problems, the officialdom goes and increases it.

An article in the current issue of Science reports that nitrogen is a significant culprit and environmental degradation. Nitrogen pollution is a serious matter because there isn’t at the moment any obvious way around it. The three main constituents of fertilizer are potassium, potash and nitrogen. Industrial nitrogen is produced from natural gas and (according to Morningstar via the blog Gristmill) its unit gross profit has more than doubled from 2004 to 2007 due to a strong increase in demand.

And the more cultivation, the more nitrogen. Fertilization releases large amounts of nitrous oxide, which is 296 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. And nitrogen has other environmental costs. From Climate Ark:

Nitrogen pollution of the world’s oceans is harming marine ecosystems and contributing to global warming, report two reviews published in the journal Science.

The research, which involved dozens of scientists from around the world, shows that human activity is dramatically altering nitrogen cycles in Earth’s oceans, soils, and atmosphere. The papers report that agricultural runoff and the burning of fossil fuels have boosted the supply of reactive nitrogen in the open oceans 50 percent above the normal range.

The first paper, led by Robert Duce of Texas A&M University, found that nitrogen produced by human activity is responsible for about a third of the nitrous oxide and a tenth of the carbon dioxide input to the world’s oceans each year. The researchers say the excess nitrogen “can deplete essential oxygen levels in the water and has significant effects on climate, food production, and ecosystems all over the world,” according to a statement from Science.

Duce and colleagues calculate that humans account for up to three percent of the new marine biological production annually. While the increased biological activity sequesters CO2 from the atmosphere, the process produces nitrous oxide (N20), a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide.

“This fertilization of the ocean by human activities has an important impact on the exchange of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide and should be considered in future climate change scenarios,” Duce, a professor at Texas A&M University, said.

“Anyone concerned about climate change will be alarmed at the scale of man’s impact on the world’s oceans, as revealed by our new study,” added Peter Liss, a co-author of the paper and an environmental scientist at the University of East Anglia. “The natural nitrogen cycle has been very heavily influenced by human activity over the last century — perhaps even more so than the carbon cycle — and we expect the damaging effects to continue to grow. It is vital that policy makers take action now to arrest this.

“The solution lies in controlling the use of nitrogen fertilizer and tackling pollution from the rapidly increasing numbers of cars, particularly in the developing world,” he continued.

In 1860, the total Nr deposition to the Earth’s surface was 32 million metric tons of nitrogen, mostly from natural emission sources. By the early 1990s, total Nr deposition had increased to 100 million metric tons. The difference was entirely due to anthropogenic activities. In some regions, deposition increased 100-fold. Adapted from Galloway et al, 2004 and appearing at Caption quoted from Human Alteration of the Nitrogen Cycle: Threats, Benefits, and Opportunities, a Joint UNESCO-SCOPE-INI Policy Brief.

In the second paper, James N. Galloway of the University of Virginia and colleagues highlight health and environmental problems that arise from increased nitrogen pollution. The authors note an “extreme imbalance” of nitrogen and argue for the need to reduce the amount of reactive nitrogen in the environment.

“The public does not yet know much about nitrogen, but in many ways it is as big an issue as carbon, and due to the interactions of nitrogen and carbon, makes the challenge of providing food and energy to the world’s peoples without harming the global environment a tremendous challenge,” Galloway explained. “We are accumulating reactive nitrogen in the environment at alarming rates, and this may prove to be as serious as putting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

“Nitrogen is needed to grow food but because of the inefficiencies of nitrogen uptake by plants and animals, only about 10 to 15 percent of reactive nitrogen ever enters a human mouth as food. The rest is lost to the environment and injected into the atmosphere by combustion,” he continued. “We must soon begin to manage nitrogen use in an integrated manner by decreasing our rate of creation of reactive nitrogen while continuing to produce enough food and energy to sustain a growing world population.”

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  1. Anonymous

    This should prove more than a little challenging as over 70% of earth’s atmosphere consists of Nitrogen…

    Remember Apollo 11?

  2. Anonymous

    Here is a short excerpt from the Duce article. The qualifiers seem to be significant.

    “Recent studies suggest that atmospheric water-soluble organic nitrogen is far more abundant than conventionally thought, constituting 30% of total Nr deposition. Given the uncertain origins and complex composition of this material, the importance of direct emissions and secondary formation of organic nitrogen is unclear. However, measurements suggest that an important fraction is anthropogenic. We therefore assume that in 1860, the relationship between organic and inorganic nitrogen deposition was the same as it is today and increase our 1860 estimate so that organic nitrogen represents 30% of total Nr deposition. The uncertainties associated with this assumption emphasize the need for further research on atmospheric organic nitrogen.”

  3. David Graves

    As Anonymous the troll observed, it is important to remember that at issue is not the very abundant gaseous form of nitrogen (N2) in the atmosphere, but all the other forms we manufacture, and the ones caused by the action of soil microbes on those compounds. By volume, nitrous oxide is a tiny byproduct of agricultural systems; however, in California, it is estimated to represent 50% of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in terms of impact. The next largest contributor–methane.

  4. burnside

    This will sound simplistic, if not actually pathetic, but the use of terra preta in commercial agriculture is reported to be nitrogen neutral and carbon negative.

    Search the journal Nature for information.

  5. uber_snotling


    I love the blog, but I am not a big fan of breathless environmental doom-mongering. Nitrogen may be a big deal for water deposition, but it is a very smal part of our climate problem.

    CO2 is currently at 380 ppm or so in the atmosphere, up from 270 or so in pre-industrial times. N2O is currently around 310 ppb in the atmosphere, up from 280 ppb in pre-industrial times. N2O is more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2 by that factor of 296, but its concentration is more than a factor of 1000 less in the atmosphere. Moreover, it is increasing less rapidly than CO2 due to anthropogenic emissions.

    We’ve known about nitrogen problems for years, and this study is just changing some of our estimates of the magnitudes involved.

    Climate change is a big problem, but this kind of reporting is what gives the denialists so much red meat to chew on.

  6. Dan Duncan


    You present us with an intellectual blog, but the more I read it, the more apparent it becomes: You try too hard.

    Everything is over-intellectualized. Then, too many readers respond with “one-up” responses…contributing not a lot to the discourse, but seeming damn smart while doing so.

    So what does all this have to do with nitrogen?

    Too much gas, that’s what.

    Yves, there is no real intellectual treatment of an issue if you simply toe the leftist line on every one of them. I’ve read over many of your past posts in the topics section….not once do you deviate…at least that I could see.

    I have little doubt that in addition to wanting more regulation of financial institutions, you “know” global warming is caused by man; you are pro-choice; you think O’Reilly is the anti-Christ and that Olbermann is “objective”; Palestinans are victims, and Israelis war criminals; you take the notion of white guilt seriously; religion is for the feeble-minded; and you use the word—“hegemon”—a lot.

    I’m not saying any one of these positions is right or wrong. I’m simply agreeing with Emerson and his point about little minds, foolish consistency and hobgoblins.

    Of course, most people consistently hold these same positions (and the opposites–also with the same foolish consistency), but too many simply are not thinking for themselves. They toe the company line…be it on the left or right.

    Here’s a topic for you to over-intellectualize: Why the high correlation between, for example, a belief in the global warming hypothesis and being pro-choice (or the belief that global warming is a croc and abortion is “murder”, if you choose). Rationally speaking, and seperated from the BS that passes as political discource, what does one have to do with the other?

    I’ve no problem with a person on the left or right following his or her brethren….but if you are going to follow –on all issues—then spare us the over-intellectualized blog trumpeting reason and rational inquiry.

    A bloated blovation of a blog. Too much nitrogen, perhaps?

  7. Yves Smith


    The reason I took the report seriously is that it ran in Science, which I understand to be fairly rigorous for magazine that aims at a broad audience. If these concerns are confirmed by further study, we’ll hear more about it, if not, this will have proven to be a vein of thought that dies a quick death.

    One of my goals with this blog is to report on things that appear to be getting insufficient media attention relative to their apparent importance. When I stray into areas like science, I run the risk of getting it wrong.

  8. Yves Smith


    If you are going to claim this blog has an ideological bias, I suggest you get your facts right. Your charges are remarkably inaccurate.

    Yes, I am a fan of regulation. That’s because I worked in the securities industry in the 1980s and it functioned much better then than it does now. And the participants still made way way more than average workers. Even John Whitehead, the former head of Goldman Sachs, hardly a right-winger, has decried current industry practice loud and clear. The Founding Fathers believed in checks and balances. Big business has become a fifth estate. If there were a better way to contain it than regulation, I’m all ears.

    There is not a single mention on this blog of O’Reilly or Olbermann. Your project your assumptions on to me. The ONLY mentions of the phrase “pro-choice” are in two posts, each in quotes from other sources on Republican party strategy. I do have one commentor who regularly notes that our environmental problems are really population problems, I sometimes weigh to say I agree, but I have never advocated a particularly course of action in terms of what to do about it.

    Similarly, the ONLY mention of Palestine comes in a quote today from the Guardian that mentions that US policy is strongly pro-Israel. That is a fact.

    And I don’t know where you get that nonsense about white guilt from. I’ve never discussed race relations. One post mention that blacks were more likely to be given subprime loans than whites given the same credit profile. That’s been widely discussed, particularly since it violates laws barring discrimination in lending. Do you consider any mention of discrimination to be tantamount to white guilt? That’s a very peculiar reasoning process.

    You seem to be conflating my blog with liberal political blogs. Aside from regulating financial services and the problems created by growing income inequality, this blog almost NEVER talks about politics. I don’t regard it as my beat.

    And as for allegedly adhering strictly to your stereotyped leftist line, this blog has been consistently opposed to homeowner rescues.

    As for “overly intellectual” I take it you prefer what, simplictic? Devoid of facts? That is about the weakest criticism I can imagine. “Gee, you do too good a job, so I don’t like what you write.” If you want to support mediocrity elsewhere, be my guest. The TV is full of garbage that is popular.

    Just as no one can make you read a newspaper or magazine you don’t like, no one is making you read this blog. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else.

  9. A curious Aussie

    Some GREAT comments here.

    I too believe our much loved blogger Yves dropped the ball on this article. However this is just one inferior post in a blog full of great posts. We can’t expect our blogger to be a master of science as well!

    After all we wouldn’t be commenting here and visiting this site if we didn’t find it informative.

    My attitude to this article is best summerised by uber_snotling’s comment:

    “Climate change is a big problem, but this kind of reporting is what gives the denialists so much red meat to chew on.”

  10. Dan Duncan


    I never stated that your blog is filled with posts about Palestine, being pro-choice or many of the other incendiary issues of the day. You completely missed my point by responding as if I did.

    On the contrary, my point is that your blog DOES NOT dwell on these issues (thankfully), but nevertheless, I have “little doubt” as to where you stand on them (not so thankfully).

    Now I’m the first to agree with you—I should have no intellectual justification for drawing a line from heightened regulation of Wall Street to Palestine. Your blog, after all, doesn’t explicitly go there.

    Yet…I have “little doubt” as to where you stand on all Left/Right issues of the day.

    And don’t give me that blather that you deviate from the stereotype because you “don’t support homeowner rescues”—as if this is a bulwark in the Stereotyped Leftist Line. There’s plenty of room on the left to oppose homeowner rescues. And besides, most of your antipathy on this issue goes to the disgust at bailing out Wall Street–which simply allows for a homeowner rescue by extension.

    Don’t you find such linear, conditioned predictability the least bit interesting?

    I do. And this is why I inserted the “over-intellectualism” in my earlier response: I am not saying, “Oh, Yves, you do too good of a job—it’s beyond my ken—so I’m just going to go and watch TV.”

    No, Yves, I’m saying—-You think you are thinking, but you’re not. You think you are bringing erudition to these complex issues, but really it’s all just obfuscation. You’re on an intellectual I-V, forcefed what to think, believe and ultimately write–and you don’t even know it.

    You, like Paul Krugman—or as you write with playground-like familiarity, “Krugman”—blindly adhere to the Lefty/Righty Playbooks with their pre-programmed scripts.

    I’m not projecting anything on to you, Yves. Obviously, I struck some chord within…or more accurately, tripped a wire within…to get such a strongly worded response penned by you— on a Saturday evening no less. Evidently, your emotions overwhelmed your reasoning, because your response was completely off point.

    Finally, if I’m wrong—and you
    you don’t toe the Leftist Company Line on a recognized Left/Right controversy—what might that deviation be?

    With linear predictably, I can already read your response: Something to the effect that it is “none of my business”. Fair enough—but why the reluctance to share? A reader has a legitimate concern: This is, in fact, a Leftist Blog cloaked in intellectualism. Why not ease the concern? Why, instead, do you tell me to just go watch TV–when you can simply dispel the claim by stating one—just one touchstone issue of the day to which you are right of center—with the caveat that you’ll never discuss it again? You’ll be able to show that you are not an automoton with a kick-ass financial vocabulary, but a legitimate open-minded thinker? C’mon, Yves, Krugman will understand.

  11. Anonymous

    dan duncan you are the predictable one – a rightwing attack dog. The kind that has done so much to drag our people down. It is thanks to your sort, your hatchet jobs and your hateful values, that our wages, pensions, and benefits shrivel, even as the rich gobble up ever more. You, and your kind, roused such a manipulative war mongering panic that we’re now embroiled is an utterly stupid conflict with no end in sight. Don’t think you are the only one, or the only kind of American, familiar with hatred. Get used to being its target, because the times are changing.

  12. Yves Smith


    I see no point in debating with someone who has indicted me (at least according to his own value system) in the absence of facts.

    I am not about to argue my politics, particularly since they are not a focus of this blog. Nevertheless, some minor but indicative examples of how knee-jerk your assumptions are: per your initial charges, I have never used the word hegemon, not do I have the slightest interest in either O’Reilly or Olbermann.

    It shows how deeply prejudiced you are that you assume, nay insist, that I adhere to your stereotype of a liberal profile and would carry myself differently in my private life than I do in my blog.

    I refer you to this comment which I posted earlier in the week.

    I welcome people taking issue with my ideas but slurs on the person who gives you a space in which to comment are not permitted. This one fell in the gratuitously ungrateful category, as opposed to the slobbering at the mouth sort.

    FYI, I’m more liberal on this matter than Barry Ritholtz: but think his policy should be viewed as the web standard:

    This may be a free country, but The Big Picture is my personal fiefdom. I rule over all as benevolent dictator/philospher king/utility infielder. Fear my wrath, mortals!

    I will ban anyone whom I choose from posting comments — usually, for a damned good reason, but on rare occasions, for the exact same reason God created the platypus: because I feel like it.

    I encourage a broad range of perspectives, philosophies, sexual orientations. Dissent is good. I want to see a debate of views, a battle in the market place of ideas. (Thomas Jefferson wasn’t so dumb after all). You can post on nearly anything, so long as it is at least tangentially related to the topic at hand.

    On occasion, I will “unpublish” a comment if I feel it is too impolite, harsh, ad hominem, inappropriate, or off-topic. Off-topic posts have been rising, and I have taken to unpublishing them en masse. Publish too many comments on a given post (3 or 4 relevant comments out of 30 are fine, 10 out of 30 is excessive). It takes me ~10 seconds to un-publish 10 comments.

    If you find yourself publishing way too many comments, consider this: This humble blog is my forum for expressing my ideas. Get your own damned blog.

    A few things that will get you permanently banned from commenting at The Big Picture. The fastest way to lose posting privileges is to misrepresent your host’s complex and nuanced views in some inane bumper sticker comment. Those who do this, be advised: I’ve read your prose and considered your thought process: Suffice it to say the literary world will suffer no harm for your deletion (Robert Frost’s legacy is safe).

    Other fast tracks to getting banned:

    – Knowingly posting false or malicious material;
    – multiple postings under different names;
    – generally engaging in troll-like behavior;
    – misquoting your host/overlord;
    – being impolite in the extreme;
    – ad hominem attacks;
    – being an asshole.

    Right now, someone is reading this and saying to themselves “What does he mean, being an asshole?” If you wondered that to yourself, well the odds strongly favor that you yourself have sphincter-like qualities. Thus, you should consider it likely that you will be banned as a rectoid from posting comments sometime in the near future.

  13. Anonymous


    That Dan is clearly some kind of right wing psycho looking for liberals to pick a fight with. Since he can’t get Paul Krugman to take interest in a low-life like him, he’s chosen you as his proxy. Flattering in a way I am sure he does not intend.

  14. davidh

    Nitrates in runoff from agricultural lands is responsible for blooms that reusult in depletion of oxygen in “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico. Huge impact on fisheries. Happens every year.

    According to wikipedia, CO2 has an atmospheric lifetime of thousands of years, vs 12 years for methane, and 120 years for NOx. NOx has 1/1000th the concentration of CO2, and 10th the lifetime. Therefore in absolute terms, a much smaller effect than CO2.

    NOx is also a major problem in the Los Angeles basin, where its a component of smog.

    Except for local effects, I dont see atmospheric NOx as much of a problem. As I live in the Los Angeles basin, its a daily worry.

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