Nitrous oxide as a greenhouse gas: 30 questions and answers

Published on
December 16, 2021

Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, was historically used as an anaesthetic during surgery in hospitals. Nowadays, it is also known as a party drug with which young people like to experiment. But did you know that nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas, many times more potent than carbon dioxide? And that it can be formed in soils? A recently published booklet answers questions about nitrous oxide emissions from agricultural soils.

The Netherlands' National Climate Agreement aims to reduce Dutch greenhouse gas emissions by half in 2030. Sequestering carbon in agricultural land is one of the ways to achieve this goal. But agrarian land can, at the same time, also become a source of nitrous oxide emissions.

The nitrogen compound "nitrous oxide" (N2O) is produced in soils during the biological processes of nitrification and denitrification. Because carbon and nitrogen cycles are connected, carbon storage can cause increased nitrous oxide emissions. Reducing other nitrogen emissions (such as ammonia into the atmosphere and nitrate leaching into groundwater and surface water) could affect nitrous oxide. It will be more difficult to meet the climate goals, if measures taken under the ammonia and manure policies increase nitrous oxide emissions from agricultural land.

30 questions and answers

A recent publication (in Dutch) answers thirty questions about nitrous oxide emissions from agricultural soils. Gerard Velthof, one of the authors: "This publication contributes to a better understanding of the processes through which the gas is formed, and the factors involved. For example, what is nitrous oxide, and how is it formed? What processes play a role in nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture? And what is the effect of measures that can be applied in the agricultural sector?"

The publication was produced as part of the Dutch research programme Slim Landgebruik (Smart Land Use). This programme provides insight into improving carbon storage in mineral agricultural soils. Wageningen University & Research is one of the programme’s research partners.