Managing a forgotten greenhouse gas under existing U.S. law: An interdisciplinary analysis

David R. Kanter, Jessica A. Wentz, James N. Galloway, William R. Moomaw, Wilfried Winiwarter

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    The United States’ legal strategy for addressing climate change in recent years has relied on authority from existing legislation. This has led to measures on a number of different greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide, methane and hydrofluorocarbons. However, one greenhouse gas has been largely forgotten: nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide is the third most abundantly emitted greenhouse gas in the U.S. and worldwide, as well as the largest remaining threat to the stratospheric ozone layer. In addition, the nitrogen atoms in nitrous oxide are part of the highly fluid nitrogen cycle where nitrogen atoms transform readily among different chemical forms, each with a unique environmental and human health impact – a process known as the nitrogen cascade. While the science of the nitrogen cascade has been explored for over a decade, there has been little work on the legal implications of this phenomenon. And yet the nitrogen cascade expands the legal options available for controlling nitrous oxide. This paper studies these options in a U.S. context and explores the environmental and economic impacts of enacting them. We determine that the Clean Air Act, and in particular its broad authority for controlling ozone depleting substances, is the most promising legal pathway for regulating nitrous oxide across all major sources. Invoking such authority could generate significant climate and stratospheric ozone benefits over 2015–2030, equivalent to taking 12 million cars permanently off the road, and 100 million chlorofluorocarbon-laden refrigerators out of service. The economic benefits could sum to over 700 billion over 2015–2030, with every 1.00 spent on abating emissions leading to 4.10 in societal benefits. The bulk of these benefits would come from reductions in other forms of nitrogen pollution such as ammonia and nitrate, highlighting the important and multiple co-benefits that could be achieved by abating nitrous oxide emissions. With the Paris Climate Agreement calling for limiting global temperature increases to “well below” two degrees Celsius, all mitigation opportunities across all sectors need to be considered. This paper suggests that nitrous oxide warrants more attention from policy-makers in the U.S. and around the world.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)44-51
    Number of pages8
    JournalEnvironmental Science and Policy
    StatePublished - Jan 1 2017


    • Cost-benefit analysis
    • Existing legal authority
    • Nitrogen cascade
    • Nitrous oxide

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Geography, Planning and Development
    • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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