The most common and most talked about greenhouse gases is CO2 or carbon dioxide. In fact, because it is so common, scientists use it as the benchmark or measure of things that warm the atmosphere.
Methane, another important GHG, for example, is 28-36 times as warming as CO2 when in the upper atmosphere (USEPA GWP – Global Warming Potential – estimate over 100 years), therefore, 1 ton of methane = 28-36 tons eCO2 or CO2 equivalents.
The most commonly discussed GHGs are:
- CO2 or carbon dioxide is produced any time something is burned. It is the most common GHG, constituting by some measures almost 55% of total long-term GHGs. It is used as a marker by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, for example, because of its ubiquity. Carbon dioxide is assigned a GWP or Global Warming Potential of 1.
- Methane or CH4 is produced in many combustion processes and also by anaerobic decomposition, for example, in flooded rice paddies, pig and cow stomachs, and pig manure ponds. Methane breaks down in approximately 10 years, but is a precursor of ozone, itself an important GHG. CH4 has a GWP of 28-36.
- Nitrous oxide in parean (laughing gas), NO/N2O or simply NOx is a byproduct of fertilizer production and use, other industrial processes and the combustion of certain materials. Nitrous oxide lasts a very long time in the atmosphere, but at the 100 year point of comparison to CO2, its GWP is 265-298.
- Fluorinated gases were created as replacements for ozone depleting refrigerants, but have proved to be both extremely long lasting and extremely warming GHGs. They have no natural sources, but are entirely man-made. At the 100 year point of comparison, their GWPs range from 1,800 to 8,000 and some variants top 10,000.
- Sulphur hexafluoride or SF6 is used for specialized medical procedures, but primarily in what are called dielectric materials, especially dielectric liquids. These are used as insulators in high voltage applications such as transformers and grid switching gear. SF6 will last thousands of years in the upper atmosphere and has a GWP of 22,800.
What is black carbon and how does it cause global warming?
Black carbon (BC) is tiny particles of carbon released as a result of the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels and biomass. These particles are extremely small, ranging from 10 µm (micrometers, PM10), the size of a single bacterium to less than 2.5 µm (PM2.5), one thirtieth the width of a human hair and small enough to pass through the walls of the human lung and into the bloodstream.
Although BC – think of the plume of smoke from a chimney or a fire – falls out of the lower atmosphere in days, while it is suspended in the air, it absorbs the sun’s heat millions of times more effectively than CO2. When wind carries BC over snow, glaciers or ice caps where it falls out onto the white, normally reflective surface, it is particularly damaging because it contributes directly to melting. Overall, BC is considered the second biggest contributor to global warming after CO2.
What are the most important sources of GHGs and black carbon?
Fossil fuel and related uses of coal and petroleum are the most important sources of GHGs and black carbon (power generation, industry, transportation, buildings).
Agriculture is the second most important source (animals – cows and pigs), feed production, chemical intensive food production, and flooded paddy rice production, as well as deforestation driven by the desire to expand cultivated areas.
(New studies suggest that agriculture is the largest contributor of particulate emissions in the US and other developed agricultural countries.)
Natural sources of GHGs and black carbon include forest fires, savanna fires and volcanos.