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Climate- and crop-responsive emission factors significantly alter estimates of current and future nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer use


Helen Flynn, tel. +44 1224 273810, fax +44 1224 272703, e-mail:


The current Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) default methodology (tier 1) for calculating nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from nitrogen applied to agricultural soils takes no account of either crop type or climatic conditions. As a result, the methodology omits factors that are crucial in determining current emissions, and has no mechanism to assess the potential impact of future climate and land-use change. Scotland is used as a case study to illustrate the development of a new methodology, which retains the simple structure of the IPCC tier 1 methodology, but incorporates crop- and climate-dependent emission factors (EFs). It also includes a factor to account for the effect of soil compaction because of trampling by grazing animals. These factors are based on recent field studies in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK. Under current conditions, the new methodology produces significantly higher estimates of annual N2O emissions than the IPCC default methodology, almost entirely because of the increased contribution of grazed pasture. Total emissions from applied fertilizer and N deposited by grazing animals are estimated at 10 662 t N2O-N yr−1 using the newly derived EFs, as opposed to 6 796 t N2O-N yr−1 using the IPCC default EFs. On a spatial basis, emission levels are closer to those calculated using field observations and detailed soil modelling than to estimates made using the IPCC default methodology. This can be illustrated by parts of the western Ayrshire basin, which have previously been calculated to emit 8–9 kg N2O-N ha−1 yr−1 and are estimated here as 6.25–8.75 kg N2O-N ha−1 yr−1, while the IPCC default methodology gives a maximum emission level of only 3.75 kg N2O-N ha−1 yr−1 for the whole area. The new methodology is also applied in conjunction with scenarios for future climate- and land-use patterns, to assess how these emissions may change in the future. The results suggest that by 2080, Scottish N2O emissions may increase by up to 14%, depending on the climate scenario, if fertilizer and land management practices remain unchanged. Reductions in agricultural land use, however, have the potential to mitigate these increases and, depending on the replacement land use, may even reduce emissions to below current levels.