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Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas (GHG), also known as laughing gas or happy gas. It contributes to the Earth’s greenhouse effect and today’s global warming. Most of the emissions come from the agricultural sector. Yet, nitrous oxide gets used in medical and dental procedures as well. Therefore, there are also significant emissions from the healthcare sector.

Nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas. When compared to carbon dioxide (CO2), it is much stronger. For example, 1 kg of the gas has the same warming effect as 300 kg of Co2.

Greenhouse gases

Greenhouse gases contribute to the greenhouse effect, leading to a warmer temperature on Earth. The gases can capture the sun’s heat when released into the atmosphere. This process happens through the albedo effect – when sunrays get reflected into space from the surface of the Earth. The GHG gases capture the heat waves, or in other words, they absorb long-wave heat radiation.

The most crucial GHG gases are water vapour (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Then there is methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and ozone (O3). The Global Warming Potential, GWP, measures how potent each gas is. By comparing a gas potential with CO2. Therefore, CO2 has a GWP of 1.

Picture of an agricultural activity, releases nitrous oxide.

What is nitrous oxide?

Nitrous oxide is a colourless greenhouse gas released naturally and by human activities. Over 60 % of emissions come from natural processes. For example, they come from vegetation, the Earth’s soil and biological processes in the oceans. However, almost 40 % of emissions come from human activities. As mentioned, these are mainly from agriculture. One common source is the use of chemical fertilizers in the fields. Also, it gets released in the burning of biomass and fossil fuels. As stated, some emissions are also coming from the healthcare sector.

The greenhouse can stay in the atmosphere for about 120 years, hence contributing to global warming for a long time. The long lifetime lets the gas rise higher up in the atmosphere. Eventually, it reaches the stratosphere and decomposes into nitrogen oxides. These nitrogen oxides damage the ozone layer.

Therefore, emissions of nitrous oxide are harmful for several reasons. It is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to dangerous chain reactions. The latter mainly refers to damage to the ozone layer. Despite this, it still needs to be regulated under the Montreal Protocol, the international agreement that protects the ozone layer. To this day, it remains one of the main threats to the layer.

Example of source: What’s your impactStanford news


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