Greenhouse gases such as CO2 occur naturally in the atmosphere. That is a good thing because otherwise, it would be much colder on earth. Greenhouse gases ensure that the heat from the sun is retained. Without greenhouse gases, it would be -18 degrees Celsius on average here. Due to the greenhouse gases, it is an average of 15 degrees Celsius. As a result, life on earth as we now know it is possible.
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The earth is heating up
Many more greenhouse gases have been released into the atmosphere in the last 250 years. They retain extra heat, causing the temperature to rise for 140 years. Scientists call this the ‘enhanced greenhouse effect’. Most people just talk about “the greenhouse effect” when they talk about global warming. But they actually mean the extra greenhouse effect.
Heating mainly by humans
Humans are the main cause of global warming. Since the industrial revolution, we have been emitting more and more greenhouse gases. We use in factories, power plants, to heat our homes and for transportation. We cut down forests on a large scale that release CO2. And we keep more and more cows, sheep, and goats for meat and dairy. All these activities mean that there is now 40 percent more CO2 in the air than 250 years ago.
Why is it a problem?
Global warming is changing our climate. This has all kinds of consequences: for example, the sea level is rising, the weather is becoming more extreme (heavy rain showers, more heatwaves), and some parts of the earth are becoming drier. You can read more about this on the page Climate change.
Which greenhouse gases are there?
The main greenhouse gases are CO2, methane (CH4), nitrous oxide, and water vapor. CO2 is short for carbon dioxide. It is also referred to as carbon dioxide. The two main sources of CO2 are fossil fuels and land-use change. A long time ago – in early geological eras – carbon dioxide was captured by trees and other organisms. Ultimately fossil fuels (petroleum, coal, natural gas) were formed from this. The CO2 is released again when these fossil fuels are burned. In addition to emissions from fossil fuels, land-use change also causes CO2 emissions. Deforestation is taking place to make room for agricultural land, for example. The CO2 that is stored in the wood is released into the air. Peat soils can also release CO2 when they dry up. This is because peat soils contain large amounts of plant residues, which can be converted into CO2 if the water level drops too far.
- Methane (CH4) is mainly released in livestock farming. Cows, sheep, and goats produce methane when digesting food. That methane comes into the air through their breath, burps, and farts. Also, methane is released during rice cultivation and from waste dumps. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas: 1 kilo of methane has the same effect as 28 kilos of CO2.
- Nitrous oxide (N2O, nitrous oxide) is mainly released from soil fertilized with artificial fertilizers or animal manure. Laughing gas is a very strong greenhouse gas: 1 kilo of laughing gas has the same effect as 265 kilos of CO2.
- Water vapor is also a greenhouse gas. Global warming makes the air warmer, and warm air can contain more water vapor. Because water vapor is a greenhouse gas, that extra water vapor in the air causes more warming, allowing the air to contain even more water vapor, warming the earth even further, and so on. In this way, the greenhouse effect of water vapor amplifies itself. There is nothing people can do or do not do to control the amount of water vapor in the air.
- Fluorine gases are the strongest greenhouse gases on the planet: they can cause thousands of times more warming than CO2. Well-known fluorine gases are HFCs and PFCs that can occur in aerosol cans, air conditioners, and refrigerators, among other things. The most powerful fluorine gas is SF6, which is used as an insulating gas in the electricity grid. SF6 causes 22,800 times more warming than CO2.
CO2 is the most important greenhouse gas
Of all the greenhouse gases emitted by humans, CO2 is the most important. More than half of the increased greenhouse effect is caused by CO2. Methane is in second place with 16%. Water vapor is also an important greenhouse gas, but humans do not release it into the air themselves.