Anyone who aspires to be eco-friendly has heard of greenhouse gases. We’re told that we need to change certain human activities so we can reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere in order to slow down the effects of global warming.
But while such sentiments are true, it’s also true that not all greenhouse gases are bad for the environment. In fact, we rely on many of them to keep our planet warm. If certain greenhouse gases were absent, our planet would be too cold to sustain plant, animal, or human life as we know it. However, we are at the point where we have too much of a good thing.
Since the earth is undoubtedly warming, we must understand what’s happening in the atmosphere so we can change our habits and make a difference. In this article, we provide a primer on this subject and discuss a few ways you can reduce your greenhouse gas emissions.
Is There a Standard Greenhouse Gases Definition?
Despite the bonanza of options available at trustworthy (and disreputable) sources online, we are big believers that basic is better. That’s why we like the definitions provided by NASA1 and the EPA:2
A greenhouse gas is any gaseous substance that traps heat in the atmosphere.
If we use more qualifiers than that, the definition becomes more technical than we want, as it gets into how gas actually traps heat. While those details are essential for understanding why some greenhouse gases are bad and others are helpful, you don’t actually need them to understand what they do. In fact, that shorter definition is helpful for setting up the rest of our discussion.
What are the Most Common Greenhouse Gases?
Next, let’s examine the primary gases that fall under our simple definition. They will help us gain a deeper understanding of how greenhouse gases impact our atmosphere.3
- Water Vapor. The most prevalent greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, it’s mostly a neutral party in terms of warming, but it’s also the most susceptible to long-term increases in carbon dioxide levels.
- Carbon Dioxide. The one that gets most of the attention, CO2 is both naturally occurring in nature and the product of human activity through the burning of fossil fuels.
- Methane. Another naturally occurring gas, it’s released during the processing of fossil fuels. It’s also the result of “cow farts,” which means there’s a rather direct correlation between human consumption of beef and methane in the atmosphere.
- Ozone. We have an “ozone layer” around our planet for a reason, in that it’s what’s helped warm the earth for millions of years. The permeability of this gas ring causes concern among environmentalists.
- Nitrous Oxide. A not-so-natural gas, this one is a direct byproduct of industrial and agricultural practices, including wastewater, solid waste, and fossil fuels.
- Chlorofluorocarbons. Also known as fluorinated gases or CFCs, most people know them as the gas used in hairspray bottles. They come from a variety of industrial activities, and they’re the most aggressive greenhouse gases in terms of negative impact on the environment.
All of these gases trap heat in the atmosphere, but not all of them are as effective or as detrimental as others. For example, carbon dioxide on its own isn’t bad – humans naturally expel the gas when we breathe – but an excess of CO2 in proportion to human and plant life on our planet can have negative consequences. The same principle applies to methane: our atmosphere normally contains methane, but when the balance gets out of whack because of fossil fuel production and over-consumption of beef, that’s when excess heat gets trapped and contributes to an overheating planet.
Hence, for any individual gas, you must determine how much of it is in the atmosphere, how long it will last, and how effective it is at trapping heat. This is especially true for nitrous oxide and CFCs, as they can cause significantly more harm to the climate, even if there’s technically less of it in the atmosphere than CO2.
What is the Relationship Between Greenhouse Gases and Global Warming?
This brings us to the central issue up for debate concerning this topic — whether or not the environment is actually hurt by these emissions. At Chariot Energy, although we’re not climate scientists, we are solar energy experts. We choose to err on the side of caution when it comes to climate change because we believe global warming is happening — 0.8 degrees Celsius since 1880.4 We want to do our part to help reduce the negative effects of this warming, even if it were discovered that somehow humans ultimately don’t have anything to do with it.
The consensus in the scientific community declares that greenhouse gases are the primary cause of global warming. Specifically, human activity is driving the increase in the percentage of the “bad” greenhouse gases that do the most harm to our environment. As in, yes, we’ve always had methane and carbon dioxide in our world, but we’re now injecting more and more of those gases into the atmosphere with each passing year to where those levels are out-of-whack with what they were for millennia.
Climate scientists refer to this as the “Greenhouse Effect.”5 The Earth operates like a normal greenhouse where a gardener grows plants. The overall ecology of the planet needs a certain amount of warmth, moisture, and sunlight for the various ecosystems that cover the globe. The atmosphere and ozone layer act as the exterior of the greenhouse — letting in, containing, and/or releasing the right proportions of gases whereby plants, animals, and humans thrive. However, global warming causes those proportions to become severely off-kilter to the point that many species of life on this earth won’t be able to exist because of the increased temperatures.
In short, most of the leading science shows a direct correlation between the rise in the percentage of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and the rise in the temperature of our planet. So, even if humans aren’t doing anything to cause it, we can still look for ways we can help slow things down.
How Can I Reduce the Greenhouse Gases I Create?
To pick on just one greenhouse gas, the average resident of the United States creates 20 tons of CO2 emissions each year, but the global average is barely 4 tons.6 According to recommendations laid out in the 2015 Paris Accords from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Americans must reduce their annual carbon dioxide creation by at least 10 tons per person by 2050 if there is any hope of preventing temperature increases beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, the temperature at which scientists believe catastrophic and irreversible climate change will occur.7
In other articles, we call this “reducing your carbon footprint.” This is the central tenet for many contemporary environmental activists. The best way to have a positive impact on the planet is to reduce our influence on greenhouse gas emissions. The choices you make every day can make a difference — especially when you work with others to create collective change.
Your ability to reduce the number of greenhouse gases you add to the atmosphere can be divided into two groups:
- Direct Emissions. This is the stuff you personally control, such as how often drive a private car alone, how often you use public transportation, and how much electricity you use.8
- Indirect Emissions. These occur as a result of your choices: how products, services, and groceries get to you, plus how energy is generated before you use it.
To be clear, we are not advocating for a return to some sort of pre-industrial society. We simply feel that you should be more aware of the impact of your choices. Hence, you can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by taking some of the following steps:
- Drive less
- Eat organic produce from local farms
- Use less electricity
- Purchase fewer consumer items
- Stop using single-use plastics and other disposable goods
Greenhouse gases are real, and they have a real environmental impact.10 This means you owe it to yourself, your fellow humans, and the future to do what you can to reduce your contribution to climate change. In other words: “Refuse. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.”