More about CO2 and global warming

According to the National Academy of Sciences, the Earth's surface temperature has risen by about 1 degree Fahrenheit in the past century, with accelerated warming during the past two decades. There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities. Human activities have altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere through the buildup of greenhouse gases – primarily carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. The heat-trapping property of these gases is undisputed although uncertainties exist about exactly how earth’s climate responds to them.

Our changing atmosphere

Energy from the sun drives the earth’s weather and climate, and heats the earth’s surface; in turn, the earth radiates energy back into space. Atmospheric greenhouse gases (water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other gases) trap some of the outgoing energy, retaining heat somewhat like the glass panels of a greenhouse.
Without this natural “greenhouse effect,” temperatures would be much lower than they are now, and life as known today would not be possible. Instead, thanks to greenhouse gases, the earth’s average temperature is a more hospitable 15,5°C (60°F). However, problems may arise when the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases increases.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased nearly 30%, methane concentrations have more than doubled, and nitrous oxide concentrations have risen by about 15%. These increases have enhanced the heat-trapping capability of the earth’s atmosphere. Sulfate aerosols, a common air pollutant, cool the atmosphere by reflecting light back into space; however, sulfates are short-lived in the atmosphere and vary regionally.

Average CO2 emission

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is considered the main greenhouse gas as it is responsible for over half the enhancement of the greenhouse effect. The United States is by far the biggest polluter of CO2 emissions. The combined CO2 emissions of the European Union, other western Europe, central and eastern Europe and the Russian Federation are approximately equal to that of the United States. Canada, Luxembourg and the United States are the only countries in the region with more than 15 tonnes of CO2 emissions per capita, with the United States recording the highest figure at 20.6 tonnes per capita. The biggest source of CO2 emissions is from electricity and heat production, often between 30-40%, but in several countries over 50% of the total emissions. Another substantial contributor in western Europe and North America is the transport sector. The transport sector’s contribution is largest in Luxembourg with close to 60 percent, whereas it is smallest in the Netherlands and Turkey at around 17-18 percent.

Why are greenhouse gas concentrations increasing?

Scientists generally believe that the combustion of fossil fuels and other human activities are the primary reason for the increased concentration of carbon dioxide. Plant respiration and the decomposition of organic matter release more than 10 times the CO2 released by human activities; but these releases have generally been in balance during the centuries leading up to the industrial revolution with carbon dioxide absorbed by terrestrial vegetation and the oceans.

What has changed in the last few hundred years is the additional release of carbon dioxide by human activities. Fossil fuels burned to run cars and trucks, heat homes and businesses, and power factories are responsible for about 98% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, 24% of methane emissions, and 18% of nitrous oxide emissions. Increased agriculture, deforestation, landfills, industrial production, and mining also contribute a significant share of emissions.

Future emissions scenarios

Estimating future emissions is difficult, because it depends on demographic, economic, technological, policy, and institutional developments. Several emissions scenarios have been developed based on differing projections of these underlying factors. For example, by 2100, in the absence of emissions control policies, carbon dioxide concentrations are projected to be 30-150% higher than today’s levels.

Changing climate

Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are likely to accelerate the rate of climate change. Scientists expect that the average global surface temperature could rise 0.6-2.5°C (1-4.5°F) in the next fifty years, and 1.4-5.8°C (2.2-10°F) in the next century, with significant regional variation. Evaporation will increase as the climate warms, which will increase average global precipitation. Soil moisture is likely to decline in many regions, and intense rainstorms are likely to become more frequent.

What are greenhouse gases?

Some greenhouse gases occur naturally in the atmosphere, while others result from human activities. Naturally occuring greenhouse gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Certain human activities, however, add to the levels of most of these naturally occurring gases:

Carbon dioxide is released to the atmosphere when solid waste, fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal), and wood and wood products are burned.

Methane is emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil. Methane emissions also result from the decomposition of organic wastes in municipal solid waste landfills, and the raising of livestock.

Nitrous oxide is emitted during agricultural and industrial activities, as well as during combustion of solid waste and fossil fuels.

Very powerful greenhouse gases that are not naturally occurring include hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), which are generated in a variety of industrial processes.

Each greenhouse gas differs in its ability to absorb heat in the atmosphere. HFCs and PFCs are the most heat-absorbent. Methane traps over 21 times more heat per molecule than carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide absorbs 270 times more heat per molecule than carbon dioxide. Often, estimates of greenhouse gas emissions are presented in units of millions of metric tons of carbon equivalents (MMTCE), which weights each gas by its GWP value, or Global Warming Potential.