Learn the sources and impact of greenhouse gases from human activity versus those in nature.
What are the natural greenhouse gases?
Greenhouse gases are chemical compounds found in our atmosphere. They're responsible for keeping the planet warm by preventing the sun's heat and energy from leaving the earth. Without the greenhouse effect, the earth's temperature would remain around 0-degrees Fahrenheit. Without greenhouse gases, the world would not support life as we know it.
When we refer to greenhouse gases, we refer to both natural and artificial gases. Naturally occurring greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapor. There is also carbon dioxide and methane in our air from human activities, which we consider artificial greenhouse gases.
Even though natural greenhouse gases are necessary to keep our planet warm through the greenhouse effect, too many natural and synthetic compounds can lead to devastating impacts. Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons and methane significantly contribute to the climate crisis we are currently experiencing by increasing the earth's surface temperature1.
Where do naturally occurring greenhouse gases come from?
Naturally occurring greenhouse gases come mainly from the respiration and decomposition of plants, trees and agricultural commodities like corn, soybeans and rice. Additionally, the oceans of the planet release immense amounts of greenhouse gases like water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone2.
What is the biggest natural contributor to greenhouse gases?
The most significant contributor and the most impactful natural greenhouse gas is water vapor. Considerable changes in water vapor concentration have created warming of the atmosphere primarily due to human activity.
Water vapor has a strong effect on the climate. As the planet's temperature increases, more water vapor is evaporated from the oceans, lakes, rivers and soil. When those bodies of water increase the amount of water that is evaporated, more water vapor enters the atmosphere and can lead to the planet-warming even more.
As other greenhouse gases accelerate the warming of the planet, the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere will only continue to increase, creating a vicious cycle that can produce devastating effects for populations in every region of the world. Some of the catastrophic consequences include severe storms like hurricanes and monsoons and drought-like conditions that lead to extreme wildfires.
What are the most prominent artificial greenhouse gases?
Several artificial greenhouse gases contribute to climate change and global warming. Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and synthetic compounds are human-caused greenhouse gases. Let us take a closer look at these prominent artificial greenhouse gases in more detail3:
- Carbon dioxide (CO2): 75 percent of the earth's warming can be attributed to artificial greenhouse gases. The burning of coal, oil, and gas has accelerated carbon dioxide levels in the earth's atmosphere since the industrial revolution. Since the industrial revolution, the earth's population has increased dramatically, as so has the energy demands of an industrialized society. With an increased demand for electricity comes an increase in the required capacity of power plants. As we move our primary sources of energy generation to renewable energy sources and away from fossil fuels, we can begin to slow down the rate of carbon dioxide accumulating in the earth's atmosphere. However, it should be noted that severe actions need to be taken to reverse the course and/or slow the acceleration of climate change and global warming.
- Methane (CH4): Methane is a dense greenhouse gas that can have a more impactful effect on global warming than carbon dioxide. When comparing methane to carbon dioxide by the gram, methane is far more impactful. That said, there is also far less methane in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Methane contributes to around 14 percent of human-created greenhouse gases. The primary sources of methane include livestock, rice fields, and the decay of organic waste in landfills.
- Nitrous oxide (N2O): Nitrous oxide comes from nitrogen-fertilized soils, livestock manure, and industrial processes. Nitrogen oxide contributes to around eight percent of the total global warming impact caused by artificial greenhouse gases.
- Fluorinated Gases: Industrial processes can release many different synthetic compounds into the atmosphere. These synthetic compounds are known as fluorinated gases. Gases like chlorofluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride are more potent than methane and nitrous oxide. However, they only account for about one percent of artificial greenhouse gas's heating of the planet.
Again, the most prominent manufactured greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases. A reduction in the production of these gases may be essential in helping combat climbing change and the planet's warming.
What percentage of greenhouse gases are artificial?
The carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels and industrial processes accounts for around 65 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. The carbon dioxide released through forestry and agriculture contributes to about 11 percent of all greenhouse emissions. After that, methane comes in around 14 percent to 16 percent, nitrous oxide six to eight percent, and fluorinated gases are two percent of all greenhouse emissions4.
What's the biggest source of artificial greenhouse gas emissions?
The most significant source of artificial greenhouse gas emissions is carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide created by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas contributes to approximately 65 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, industrial processes can make a significant amount of carbon dioxide. Although carbon dioxide does occur naturally in the atmosphere, the dramatic increase in its concentrations due to human activities has created an imbalance in the plant's natural carbon dioxide cycle. This imbalance has led to weather patterns, precipitation levels, and global surface temperatures. Increases in the global surface temperature can lead to more frequent severe weather events, rising sea levels, melting of glaciers and polar ice caps and more severe droughts and wildfires.
Why are greenhouse gas emissions harmful to the environment?
Essentially, greenhouse gases can have many detrimental effects on the environment and human health. When greenhouse gases are at high concentrations, the amount of heat trapped by the earth's atmosphere can cause global warming and climate change. Additionally, the air quality of breathable air poses serious health consequences for humans. Air pollution can directly lead to cancers and other illnesses. Greenhouse gas emissions also pose a grave danger to society by increasing the frequency and intensity of severe weather events. As climate change continues to impact the planet, food scarcity from droughts and unseasonal weather conditions could become a severe issue that may cause the forced migration of vulnerable populations and increase global hunger and poverty5.
Why is CO2 the most important greenhouse gas?
CO2 is the most important greenhouse gas because it most impacts climate change and global warming. Although there are other greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide, CO2 poses the most significant risk to irreversible damage caused by climate change. Since the industrial revolution, carbon dioxide created from burning coal, oil, and natural gas has been the biggest driver of global warming. Additionally, CO2 is considered the most important greenhouse gas because it can remain in the atmosphere. When CO2 is created, it can stay in the atmosphere for up to 1,000 years. It is said that CO2 released into the atmosphere can remain intact with up to 40 percent concentration levels for up to 100 years, 20 percent intact for 1,000 years, and 10 percent intact for up to 10,000 years6.
How do we counteract artificial greenhouse gases?
The most significant contributors to greenhouse gases are the industrial and energy sectors. With so many industry processes lacking low-emission alternatives, the development of large-scale carbon capture and storage technologies may become a requirement. Addressing issues concerning energy efficiency, fuel switching, and transitioning to renewable energy sources can help counteract the impact of manufactured greenhouse gases6.
Does renewable energy produce less greenhouse gas emissions?
Yes, renewable energy sources produce less greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels. Some renewable energy sources like wind and solar do not have any greenhouse gases. By utilizing renewable energy sources rather than burning fossil fuels, the world may begin to see carbon dioxide and other greenhouse emissions reduce their concentration levels in the atmosphere. Doing this could be precisely what the planet needs to reduce the acceleration of global warming and to help fight the harmful effects of climate change.
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