Nitrous oxide the biggest threat to the ozone layer, claims UN

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has called for action against overuse of nitrous oxide, as it issued a warning against the dangers of the gas commonly used in agriculture and industry.

Nitrous oxide, perhaps more commonly known as laughing gas, has long been recognised as a toxic greenhouse gas, but has in recent years passed largely unnoticed in climate negotiations as their contribution to global warming is difficult to measure.

Now, however, UNEP is calling for a reduction in nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, claiming that excessive use of the gas in industry, agriculture and coal plants has allowed it to silently grow into a huge threat to the environment, and rising high into the ranks of the greenhouse gases which are currently causing the most damage to the ozone layer.

UNEP’s report, Drawing Down N2O, claims that excessive use of the gas in farming and human activities could cause levels of N2O to double within the next 35 years, which would potentially reverse all progress made to slow the destruction of the ozone layer, as well as exacerbating global warming.

Whilst the gas exists naturally in the Earth’s atmosphere, this accounts for less than one third of its use. The majority of N2O is produced through human activity; through agriculture and in coal plants, as well as being used as a painkiller in dentistry and surgery, and as a recreational drug. The report published by UNEP states that one tonne of nitrous oxide has an impact equal to 300 tonnes of carbon dioxide, and that man-made emissions alone have caused its presence in the atmosphere to increase by 20 per cent in the last century. Unless action is taken to reverse the damage it causes to the ozone layer, another 5.3 million tonnes will be released into the atmosphere by 2050.

The gas is doubly damaging for the ozone layer, as it remains in the air for over a century, where it travels upwards into the atmosphere, undoing the work done to reduce the size of the ‘ozone hole’.

The executive director of UNEP, Achim Steiner, said that from the viewpoint of the climate negotiations, tackling N2O emissions could be crucial in slowing the rise in the world’s temperature and keeping it below the danger level set by governments, which is a two degree increase.

“UNEP’s role is to draw the attention of this conference to the science so that politicians can act”, he said. “Although this is known as laughing gas, it is far from a laughing matter as far as its effect on the ozone layer and the climate is concerned. It has a disproportionate impact on global warming because of its warming properties and long lifetime in the atmosphere.”

The UNEP report pointed to ways in which industries could change their habits to reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, whilst improving agricultural yields and save billions of dollars in fertiliser costs, such as wastewater treatment that recycles nutrients as fertiliser.

Sources include BBC News, Eco Business

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