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Home > Natural Resources > Land Management for Sustainable Communities and Natural Resources

Is Your Urban Green Space NOT So Green?

Green isn't always green. Lawns and athletic field management makes a big difference between positive and negative greenhouse gas contributions.

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"Lawns look great – they’re nice and green and healthy, and they’re photosynthesizing a lot of organic carbon. But the carbon-storing benefits of lawns are counteracted by fuel consumption," reports Amy Townsend-Small, Earth system science postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the study, forthcoming in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

"It’s impossible for these lawns to be net greenhouse gas sinks because too much fuel is used to maintain them," Townsend-Small concludes.

Dispelling the notion that urban “green” spaces help counteract greenhouse gas emissions, new research has found – in Southern California at least – that total emissions would be lower if lawns did not exist.

Turfgrass is increasingly widespread in urban areas and covers 1.9 percent of land in the continental U.S., making it the most common irrigated crop.

Turfgrass Lawns

Turfgrass lawns help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and store it as organic carbon in soil, making them important "carbon sinks."

However, greenhouse gas emissions from fertilizer production, mowing, leaf blowing and other lawn management practices are four times (4X) greater than the amount of carbon stored by ornamental grass in parks, a UC Irvine study shows.

GHS includes nitrous oxide...300x carbon dioxide

These emissions include nitrous oxide released from soil after fertilization. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas that’s 300 times (300X) more powerful than carbon dioxide, the Earth’s most problematic climate warmer.

Balance Carbon Sinks with GHG Emissions in Urban Green Space

The research results are important to greenhouse gas legislation being negotiated. "We need this kind of carbon accounting to help reduce global warming,” Townsend-Small says. “The current trend is to count the carbon sinks and forget about the greenhouse gas emissions, but it clearly isn’t enough.”

The researchers evaluated soil samples over time to ascertain carbon storage, or sequestration, and they determined nitrous oxide emissions by sampling air above the turf. Then they calculated carbon dioxide emissions resulting from fuel consumption, irrigation and fertilizer production using information about lawn upkeep from park officials and contractors.

The GHG-carbon study showed that nitrous oxide emissions from lawns were comparable to those found in agricultural farms, which are among the largest emitters of nitrous oxide globally.

Carbon Sequestration of Turfgrass Lawns

In ornamental turfgrass lawns, nitrous oxide emissions from fertilization offset just 10% to 30% of carbon sequestration.

But fossil fuel consumption for management, the researchers calculated, released about 4X (four times) more carbon dioxide than the plots could take up.

Carbon Sequestration of Athletic Fields

Athletic fields fared even worse, because – due to soil disruption by tilling and resodding – they didn’t trap nearly as much carbon as ornamental grass but required the same emissions-producing care.

Previous urban GHG/carbon studies have documented lawns storing carbon, but this research was the first to compare carbon sequestration to nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide emissions from lawn grooming practices.

The UCI study was supported by the Kearney Foundation of Soil Science and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.



Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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