Carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas that drives global climate change, continues to rise every month.
By trapping heat from sunlight, greenhouse gases have retained Earth’s climate habitable for humans and countless different species. But these pollutants are now out of balance and threaten to change radically which living things can survive on this world –and where.
Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide–the most dangerous and widespread greenhouse gas–are at the highest levels ever recorded. Greenhouse gas levels are so high primarily because humans have introduced them to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. The gases absorb solar energy and maintain warmth near Earth’s surface, rather than letting it flow into space. That trapping of heat is called the greenhouse effect.
The roots of the greenhouse effect theory lie in the 19th century when French mathematician Joseph Fourier calculated in 1824 that the Earth would be much colder if it had no atmosphere. In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius was the first to link an increase in carbon dioxide gas by fossil fuels using a warming effect.
Nowadays, climate change is the term scientists use to describe the complex shifts, driven by greenhouse gas concentrations, that are now affecting our planet’s weather and climate systems. Climate change encompasses not only the rising average temperatures we refer to global warming but also intense weather events, changing wildlife populations and habitats, rising seas, and also a variety of other impacts.
Authorities and associations around the world such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body which tracks the most recent climate change science, are measuring greenhouse gases, tracking their effects, and implementing alternatives.
Major greenhouse gases and resources
Carbon dioxide (CO2): Carbon dioxide is the principal greenhouse gas, responsible for approximately three-quarters of emissions. It can linger in the air for centuries. In 2018, carbon dioxide levels reached 411 parts per million in Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory, the highest monthly average recorded. Carbon dioxide emissions chiefly include burning organic materials: coal, oil, gas, timber, and solid waste.
Methane (CH4): The main component of natural gas, methane is released from landfills, natural gas and oil industries, and agriculture (especially from the digestive systems of grazing animals). A molecule of methane does not remain in the atmosphere provided that a molecule of carbon dioxide–about 12 years–but is at least 84 times more powerful within two decades. It accounts for approximately 16 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Nitrous Oxide (N2O): Nitrous oxide occupies a relatively small share of global greenhouse gas emissions–about six percent–but it’s 264 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in more than 20 years.
Agriculture and livestock, such as fertilizer, manure, and burning of agricultural residue, together with burning gas, are the biggest sources of nitrous oxide emissions.
Industrial gases: Fluorinated gases such as hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, chlorofluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) possess heat-trapping prospective thousands of times greater than CO2 and keep in the air for hundreds to thousands of years.
Water vapor is actually the world’s most abundant greenhouse gas, but it is not monitored the same manner as other greenhouse gases since it isn’t directly emitted by human activity and its effects are not well known. Similarly, ground-level or tropospheric ozone (not to be confused with the protective stratospheric ozone layer higher up) is not emitted directly but stems from complicated reactions one of the pollutants in the air.
Outcomes of greenhouse gases
Greenhouse gases have far-ranging environmental and health effects. They cause climate change by trapping heat, and they also contribute to respiratory disease from smog and air pollution. Intense weather, food distribution disruptions, and improved wildfires are different effects of climate change brought on by greenhouse gases. The normal weather patterns we’ve grown to expect will change; a few species will evaporate; others will grow or migrate.
The way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
Nations around the world acknowledged this fact with the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. The changes will be most significant among the largest emitters: Nordic nations are responsible for at least three-quarters of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, together with China, the United States, and India leading the way.
They include swapping fossil fuels for renewable sources, fostering energy efficiency, and discouraging carbon emissions by placing a cost on them. (Read more about such solutions here.)
The world technically has only one-fifth of its “carbon budget”–that the entire is 2.8 trillion metric tons–remaining to prevent heating the Earth over 1.5 degrees Celsius. Halting the trends in movement will need more than just phasing out fossil fuels. In fact, the avenues to stopping global temperature increases of 1.5 or 2 degrees C, the 2 objects summarized by the IPCC, rely in some way on embracing methods of sucking CO2 in the skies. These include planting trees, conserving existing forests and grasslands, and capturing CO2 from power plants and plants.