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Article     |     Next >>   Contents Vol 41(2)

Nitrous oxide emission from Australian agricultural lands and mitigation options: a review

Ram C. Dalal, Weijin Wang, G. Philip Robertson and William J. Parton

Australian Journal of Soil Research 41(2) 165 - 195
Published: 03 April 2003

Abstract

Increases in the concentrations of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and halocarbons in the atmosphere due to human activities are associated with global climate change. The concentration of N2O has increased by 16% since 1750. Although atmospheric concentration of N2O is much smaller (314 ppb in 1998) than of CO2 (365 ppm), its global warming potential (cumulative radiative forcing) is 296 times that of the latter in a 100-year time horizon. Currently, it contributes about 6% of the overall global warming effect but its contribution from the agricultural sector is about 16%. Of that, almost 80% of N2O is emitted from Australian agricultural lands, originating from N fertilisers (32%), soil disturbance (38%), and animal waste (30%).

Nitrous oxide is primarily produced in soil by the activities of microorganisms during nitrification, and denitrification processes. The ratio of N2O to N2 production depends on oxygen supply or water-filled pore space, decomposable organic carbon, N substrate supply, temperature, and pH and salinity. N2O production from soil is sporadic both in time and space, and therefore, it is a challenge to scale up the measurements of N2O emission from a given location and time to regional and national levels.

Estimates of N2O emissions from various agricultural systems vary widely. For example, in flooded rice in the Riverina Plains, N2O emissions ranged from 0.02% to 1.4% of fertiliser N applied, whereas in irrigated sugarcane crops, 15.4% of fertiliser was lost over a 4-day period. Nitrous oxide emissions from fertilised dairy pasture soils in Victoria range from 6 to 11 kg N2O-N/ha, whereas in arable cereal cropping, N2O emissions range from <0.01% to 9.9% of N fertiliser applications. Nitrous oxide emissions from soil nitrite and nitrates resulting from residual fertiliser and legumes are rarely studied but probably exceed those from fertilisers, due to frequent wetting and drying cycles over a longer period and larger area. In ley cropping systems, significant N2O losses could occur, from the accumulation of mainly nitrate-N, following mineralisation of organic N from legume-based pastures. Extensive grazed pastures and rangelands contribute annually about 0.2 kg N/ha as N2O (93 kg/ha per year CO2-equivalent). Tropical savannas probably contribute an order of magnitude more, including that from frequent fires. Unfertilised forestry systems may emit less but the fertilised plantations emit more N2O than the extensive grazed pastures. However, currently there are limited data to quantify N2O losses in systems under ley cropping, tropical savannas, and forestry in Australia. Overall, there is a need to examine the emission factors used in estimating national N2O emissions; for example, 1.25% of fertiliser or animal-excreted N appearing as N2O (IPCC 1996).

The primary consideration for mitigating N2O emissions from agricultural lands is to match the supply of mineral N (from fertiliser applications, legume-fixed N, organic matter, or manures) to its spatial and temporal needs by crops/pastures/trees. Thus, when appropriate, mineral N supply should be regulated through slow-release (urease and/or nitrification inhibitors, physical coatings, or high C/N ratio materials) or split fertiliser application. Also, N use could be maximised by balancing other nutrient supplies to plants. Moreover, non-legume cover crops could be used to take up residual mineral N following N-fertilised main crops or mineral N accumulated following legume leys. For manure management, the most effective practice is the early application and immediate incorporation of manure into soil to reduce direct N2O emissions as well as secondary emissions from deposition of ammonia volatilised from manure and urine.

Current models such as DNDC and DAYCENT can be used to simulate N2O production from soil after parameterisation with the local data, and appropriate modification and verification against the measured N2O emissions under different management practices.

In summary, improved estimates of N2O emission from agricultural lands and mitigation options can be achieved by a directed national research program that is of considerable duration, covers sampling season and climate, and combines different techniques (chamber and micrometeorological) using high precision analytical instruments and simulation modelling, under a range of strategic activities in the agriculture sector.

Keywords: denitrification, greenhouse gases, fertilisers, pastures, cropping, carbon dioxide equivalent, nitrogen use efficiency, water-filled pore space.



Full text doi:10.1071/SR02064

© CSIRO 2003

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