A Guide to Greenhouse Gases

greenhouse gases

Greenhouse gases are ones that trap heat within the atmosphere, and that experts believe are responsible for global warming and climate change.  Since the 18th century and the beginning of the industrial revolution, the activities of humankind have been responsible for almost all of the increase in greenhouses gases in the atmosphere.

Since the dawn of the world, it has always been changing. Some of these changes are easy to see, such as the changing of the seasons and of the weather. Other changes, such as those affecting the climate, are not always so easy to see.

The heating of the planet is thought to be responsible for unpredictable weather, such as stronger storms, as well as the melting of glaciers. Everything on earth is linked to the climate, and although it has changed in the past naturally, the greenhouse gases that are now changing the planet are a direct result of humankind. This has resulted in climate changes that are happening far faster than society has ever seen before.

In terms of gases, the main culprits responsible for this are:

  • Carbon Dioxide (CO2). This gas is released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas), trees and wood products, solid waste, and as a byproduct of various chemical reactions, for example the manufacture of cement. Carbon dioxide can be removed from the atmosphere as part of the biological carbon cycle via plant absorption.
  • Methane (CH4). This gas is emitted through the production and transport of oil, coal, and natural gas. Methane is also present in the atmosphere as a result of livestock, and agricultural practices. Another way it is emitted is as a result of decaying waste in landfills.
  • Nitrous Oxide (N2O). Emitted during industrial and agricultural activities, and through the combustion of solid waste and fossil fuels, nitrous oxide is another greenhouse gas that is harming the planet.
  • Fluorinated Gases. Perfluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons, nitrogen trifluoride, and sulfur hexafluoride are powerful, synthetic greenhouse gases that are produced by industrial processes. Often fluorinated gases are used as a substitute for ozone-depleting substances like hydrochlorofluorocarbons, halons, and chlorofluorocarbons. Although these gases are usually emitted in smaller quantities, they are still considered as being very potent, and are therefore occasionally referred to as High Global Warming Potential gases or High GWP gases.

The effects of greenhouses gases on climate change

A gas’s effect on the climate depends on three main factors:

  1. How much of the gas that’s in the atmosphere. The abundance or concentration of a gas is important to be aware of, as larger greenhouse gas emissions lead to elevated concentrations of them in the atmosphere. Concentrations of greenhouse gases are measured in parts per million, per billion, and per trillion. As a guide, one part per million equates to a single drop of water dropped into approximately 13 gallons of liquid.
  1. How long the gas stays within the atmosphere. Each of the different greenhouse gases will remain in the atmosphere for a different amount of time. That being said, every one of these gases will remain within the atmosphere for enough time to become well mixed. This means that regardless of the emissions source, the amount of each gas measured within the atmosphere at any one time will be the same the world over.
  1. The strength of the gas’s impact on global temperatures – Every greenhouse gas has what is known as a Global Warming Potential (GWP). This is calculated to reflect how long it absorbs energy, and on average, how long it will remain in the atmosphere. Gases with higher GWPs absorb more energy than ones with lower GWPs, therefore contributing more highly to the warming of the earth.

Primary Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) publishes the Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gases and Sinks, in which the total estimated greenhouse gas emissions produced by the country as a whole are published. The annual report also estimates removals associated with human activity across the country.

In the United States today, the EPA states that the primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions are known to be:

  • Electricity production – Making up 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2014, electricity production is responsible for the generation of the largest amount of greenhouse gases in the country. As much as 67% of all electricity in the U.S. comes from the burning of fossil fuels – usually natural gas or coal.
  • Transportation – Responsible for 26% of 2014 greenhouse gas emissions, burning fossil fuels for planes, trains, ships, cars, and trucks is the second largest source of pollution in the U.S.
  • Industry – Primarily stemming from the burning of fossil fuels for energy purposes, 21% of greenhouse gases in 2014 came from industrial processes. In addition, chemical reactions needed to produce goods contributed to this number.
  • Residential and commercial – Home and business greenhouse gas emissions in 2014 were at a level of 21%. These primarily arose from the use of products containing greenhouse gases, the handling of waste, and the burning of fossil fuels for heating purposes.
  • Agriculture -In 2014, cows, rice production, and agricultural soils were responsible for 9% of all greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Forestry and land use – In 2014, there was an offset of 11% of greenhouse gas emissions via this means. This is because land areas can absorb CO2 from the atmosphere by acting as a sink, as well as also being a source of greenhouse gas emissions. Through managing lands and forests, it is possible to absorb more CO2 than is emitted.

So What’s Next?

With greenhouse gas emissions rising, it’s clear to see that there has to be a cleaner way to live. Ordinary people can do their part in terms of keeping their carbon footprint in check by car sharing, being energy efficient in the home, and more. Being aware of the impact of greenhouse gases on the environment is something that everyone needs to mindful of.

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