I recently ran across a news item questioning one of the benefits that the lawn service industry attributes to well-maintained lawns – namely the role of maintained lawns in mitigating greenhouse gases.The new item referred to research conducted by Dr. Chauanhui Gu at Appalachian State University, Boone, N.C., which indicates that lawns and turfgrass systems produce more greenhouse gases than they absorb.

Dr. Gu was assisted in his research by Professor George Hornberger, Ph.D. candidate John Crane from Vanderbilt University and Assistant Professor Amanda Carrico from the University of Colorado-Boulder. Their findings are detailed in a paper entitled “The effects of household management practices on the global warming potential of urban lawns,” which appears in the March 2015 issue of Journal of Environmental Management. The paper can be accessed here with a PDF download available for purchase for $41.95.

OK, with that out of the way, let’s get to what the researchers are saying about lawns. 

But, rather than editorialize as I haven’t read the paper – not being patient enough to slog through through pages of research findings – I’ll serve as the humble messenger (don’t shoot the messenger!), and share the news item as written.

Here is the news item:

Although it seems counterintuitive, they (researchers) found that instead of acting as a carbon sink and storing carbon in the soil as previous studies indicated, lawns and other turf grass systems emit nitrous oxide (N2O), “one of the most problematic greenhouse gases,” Gu said.

Gu said that the impact of one gram of N2O on warming the atmosphere is more than 298 times that of one gram of CO2. The majority of N2O emissions arise naturally from soil, where microbes break down nitrogen from fertilizers, releasing N2O as a byproduct.

“This is an important finding. It raises a red flag and shows that green space is not really green,” he said regarding the notion that urban lawns were beneficial to the atmosphere.

Gu’s colleagues at Vanderbilt spent 16 months collecting N2O emissions from six lawns in residential neighborhoods in Nashville, Tennessee. They used a closed chamber to trap the emissions from the soil and analyzed the air through gas chromatography.

In the continental U.S., urban lawns, including athletic fields and golf courses, account for about 1.9 percent of the total land area, a number that is expected to increase in the future.

Researchers converted the N2O emissions to the CO2 equivalent and included other CO2-equivalent emissions from lawn management practices determined by a survey of 348 households conducted by Carrico. This included the CO2 emissions from the fossil fuel used to mow, irrigate and fertilize lawns, and to manufacture, commercialize and transport fertilizer.

“Based on the land area and other CO2-equivalent emissions from lawn management, the total CO2 emission from lawns in the U.S. is about 15 million tons annually,” Gu said.

“If take into account the carbon footprint or carbon cost for lawn care practices and the NO2 emissions, urban lawns are a net carbon emitter and worsen global warming,” Gu said.

The researchers propose some solutions or best management practices that can be adopted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“As a general run, the less management the better – less frequent mowing, fertilizer application and irrigation. Also, it’s a better practice to leave the grass clippings to add nutrients to the lawn rather than disposing them at a landfill where they will emit CO2,” Gu said.

“But people care about the aesthetic condition of their lawn. You can’t have an ugly lawn or your neighbor is going to complain,” Gu said. “So we have to find a balance. We can’t completely remove lawn maintenance, but we can educate the community in terms of raising their awareness regarding best lawn management practices.”