From Scott Carlberg

Think of a blanket. That may be the best common, everyday thing that can help explain what a greenhouse gas does. Just like when you put on a blanket, heat gets trapped.

Over four blogs ECC will cover some basic issues about this topic. First, what is a Greenhouse Gas? Second, what is methane? Third, what is the big debate about methane? Fourth, what does this look like in the Carolinas?

Greenhouse Gas is no new environmental idea. In 1827 French mathematician Jean-Baptiste Fourier coined the term greenhouse effect. It explained the relatively small temperature differences between day and night on Earth and how that it creates climate. (Source)

Image: EIA

This old idea has modern implications. Space.com addressed the subject just a few months ago, saying, “Increases in greenhouse gases in the coming decades are expected to harm human health, increase droughts, contribute to sea level rise, and decrease national security and economic well-being throughout the world.”

Four kinds of emissions make-up Greenhouse Gases. Here’s how the US Environmental Protection Agency describes them.

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2): Carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil), solid waste, trees and other biological materials, and also as a result of certain chemical reactions (e.g., manufacture of cement). Carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere (or “sequestered”) when it is absorbed by plants as part of the biological carbon cycle.
  • Methane (CH4): Methane is emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil. Methane emissions also result from livestock and other agricultural practices and by the decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills.
  • Nitrous oxide (N2O): Nitrous oxide is emitted during agricultural and industrial activities, combustion of fossil fuels and solid waste, as well as during treatment of wastewater.
  • Fluorinated gases: Hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride, and nitrogen trifluoride are synthetic, powerful greenhouse gases that are emitted from a variety of industrial processes. Fluorinated gases are sometimes used as substitutes for stratospheric ozone-depleting substances (e.g., chlorofluorocarbons, hydrochlorofluorocarbons, and halons). These gases are typically emitted in smaller quantities, but because they are potent greenhouse gases, they are sometimes referred to as High Global Warming Potential gases (“High GWP gases”).

Image: NASA

Trouble is that not all Greenhouse Gases act the same. Some are worse players than others for two reasons. (Source)

  • The Global Warming Potential (GWP) is the radiative effect of each unit of gas over a specified period of time, expressed relative to the radiative effect of CO2. An amount of gas with high GWP will warm the Earth more than the same amount of CO2.
  • Atmospheric lifetime measures how long the gas stays in the atmosphere before natural processes remove it. A gas with a long lifetime can exert more warming influence than a gas with a short lifetime if GWPs are the same.

The issues – how potent of a gas it is and how long it lasts.

One gas, however, is likely to get more press. Methane. That is our next blog in this series.