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You Can't Change What You Can't Measure: Understanding Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Costa Rica

You can’t change what you can’t measure: understanding greenhouse gas emissions in Costa Rica

Analysis of field samples with Gas chromatograph with headspace autosampler. (Photo: A. Pérez/University of Costa Rica)

In Costa Rica climate change is a real concern. Sea level rise, climatic variability, and climate-induced disease outbreaks are likely to affect the availability of drinking water and threaten local amphibians and marine life. The country is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, and is now taking steps to learn how much greenhouse gases the dairy and agricultural sectors emit in order to determine what actions it can take to reduce the impact of climate change. 

“A lack of training, equipment and national laboratory mean that Cost Rica relies on international emission factors to estimate the emissions of greenhouse gases from agriculture,” said Ana Gabriela Pérez, a researcher at the University of Costa Rica, who is working to develop a national reference laboratory for the measurement of greenhouse gases in the country. 

“Costa Rica aims to become carbon neutral by 2021, but the international greenhouse gas emission factors aren’t very accurate for us. The country needs more reliable data about its own emissions, and it needs to be able to gather those data itself,” Pérez said. One way of  obtaining greenhouse gas data from different land uses is to team up with the IAEA to develop Costa Rica’s analytical and instrumental capabilities in regard to nuclear techniques. 

Atomic answers

Nuclear techniques offer substantial advantages over conventional techniques for measuring climate change impact (see box). “Stable isotope analysers let us monitor agricultural processes as they happen. They allow us to quantify carbon capture and emission patterns of farming practices, enabling us to find ways to improve them,” Pérez explained. 

Key to counterbalancing the increase of CO2 in agriculture is carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration is a process of changing agricultural practices to minimize emissions and to help remove CO2 from the atmosphere by replenishing the depleting CO2 stores in degraded soil boosting soil productivity and resilience to harsh climate conditions.

Quantifying CO2 emissions from soil provides a unique insight into changes in carbon decomposition rates and the balance of microbial respiration — which in turn can be used to drive changes in agricultural practices influencing soil processes and the release of CO2. The accuracy and robustness of near-infrared laser beam technology allows the technique to create precise quantification of soil and carbon processes in croplands. 

The country needs more reliable data about its own emissions, and it needs to be able to gather those data itself.
Ana Gabriela Pérez, Researcher, University of Costa Rica

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a greenhouse gas that has 298 times more global-warming potential per unit mass than CO2, and is naturally produced in soils during the microbial processes of nitrification, co-denitrification and denitrification. “We can use nuclear techniques to determine whether N2O is produced from the nitrogen in fertilizers or from nitrogen in the soil,” Pérez explained. It is known from 15N measurements that of total N2O emissions, 10 to 40 per cent can be attributed to fertilizers and 60 to 90 per cent originate from the soil, Pérez added.

Real change for climate change

These new data, specific to Costa Rica, will help to design policy change in the country. Greenhouse gas emissions, and in particular the effects of fertilizers, form the basis of cost–benefit calculations that can be used to determine the right amount and kind of fertilizer to be applied in order to move towards carbon neutrality in the dairy sector. 

The project is helping to bring about change with the involvement of the private sector through lectures and field studies at the University of Costa Rica and through the joint Livestock Commission of the Programme of Research and Transference of Technology. 

The project in Costa Rica is one of many ongoing coordinated research projects run by the IAEA in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) that focus on reaching a more accurate and complete understanding of greenhouse gas emissions around the world, said Mohammad Zaman, a soil scientist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. Besides Costa Rica, the project also helps scientists from Brazil, Chile, China, Estonia, Ethiopia, Germany, Iran, Pakistan and Spain to enhance their ability to measure greenhouse gas emissions with greater precision as well as identify their exact source of production in soils, in order to apply mitigation measures, Zaman said.

Last update: 31 Mar 2021

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