# Why does nitrous oxide have 300 times the global warming potential of CO2?

Both nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide have roughly the same atmospheric lifetime (nitrous oxide slightly longer), so I thought that it would have to do with the infrared absorbance associated with each of them. So I looked at their spectrum.

Perhaps this is misleading because it is my understanding that not much infrared light at around the 2300 $\pu{cm^{-1}}$ region exists. But even so, that means that the two peaks that matter are $\ce{CO2}$'s 700 peak, and $\ce{N2O}$'s 1300 peak. It is my understanding that the blackbody radiation of earth peaks at around 700, and though sizable, is much less at 1300. So, I don't see why nitrous oxide would have a greater global warming potential than carbon dioxide.

• On a molecule to molecule basis besides any basic transition intensity effect perhaps it is due to the fact that $\ce{CO2}$ belongs to the $D_{\infty h}$ point group and has zero nuclear spin which means that odd J rotational levels are absent. – porphyrin Apr 20 '17 at 7:07
• I'm not sure whether global warming potential takes this into account, but $\ce{N2O}$ may oxidize/decay into other compounds which have far greater GWP, so "by proxy" $\ce{N2O}$ could end up having a significant impact. – Nicolau Saker Neto Apr 20 '17 at 9:21
• From Wikipedia "Even if a gas absorbs radiation efficiently at a certain wavelength, this may not affect its GWP (Global Warming Potential) much if the atmosphere already absorbs most radiation at that wavelength. A gas has the most effect if it absorbs in a "window" of wavelengths where the atmosphere is fairly transparent." $\ce{N2O}$ happens to lie within one of these "windows" where nothing else is absorbing much. – airhuff Apr 20 '17 at 17:20
• @NicolauSakerNeto , methane is a good example of what you are talking about. It is a strong greenhouse gas with a short atmospheric lifetime (~12yr) whose primary sink is oxidation to other greenhouse gases, $\ce{CO2}$ and water. – airhuff Apr 20 '17 at 17:25
• @NicolauSakerNeto It is a good point to raise, but not applicable to the GWP of N2O as a discrete molecule. As said, it is important to raise, as N2O is involved in ozone depletion. It's not as effective at O3 depletion as CFCs, but the increasing concentrations of N2O (coupled with decreases in CFCs) make it a major player. – R Ramsay Jun 12 '18 at 15:04