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How Greenhouse Gases cause Climate Change

The fact that we still haven’t found permanent solutions to other greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide and ground-level ozone should be of great concern says Anne Muthoni

Similar to how a blanket keeps us warm at night, the greenhouse gases keep the earth extra warm. However, this warmth is quite harmful.

In fact, it’s not warmth but heat waves that are causing a lot of harm to the earth. Forests are burning and so are houses. The heat has become unbearable even to the human species. 

A case in point is the heatwave that struck Northern West America in the months of June and July 2021. It damaged both rail and road infrastructure, forced businesses shut, melted snow caps that resulted in deadly floods, among others. Destruction of crops led to increase in the food insecurity rates, a global issue that will continue to be a menace as climate change effects get more adverse.

Global Warming and Greenhouse Gases.

One might wonder how greenhouse gases bring about global warming. Well, the gases accumulate in the atmosphere and form a blanket layer that traps most of the heat that is supposed to escape back to space, from the earth. This therefore increases the temperatures on the planet because the heat is retained instead of being radiated. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently confirmed that human activity is the key cause of global warming. Today, we are referring to this era as the Anthropocene. An era where the human race has increased the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by significant amounts in comparison to the pre-industrial era. These greenhouse gases have varying global warming potentials as well as lifetimes in the atmosphere. 

Global Warming Potential.

As per Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Warming Potential (GWP) is a measure of how much energy the emissions of 1 ton of a gas will absorb over a given period of time, relative to the emissions of 1 ton of carbon dioxide. The larger the GWP the more a given gas warms the earth compared to carbon dioxide over that time period. 

Carbon dioxide has a GWP of 1, since it is the reference point, while other greenhouse gases have more than 1 GWP. Fluorinated gases have tens of thousands GWP.  Unfortunately, these gases are emitted as a result of human activity and do not exist naturally in the atmosphere. 

Carbon Emissions.

A major concern in regards to global warming mitigation measures, is its major focus on carbon emissions. It is understandable that carbon is one of the major greenhouse gases whose concentration in the atmosphere has increased largely due to coal and fossil fuel combustion, mostly from the energy and transport sector. Also, carbon can stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years and has significant global warming potential. However, is it the only gas that we should be worried about?

How about the fluorinated gases whose GWP is in the tens of thousands? Shouldn’t these gases worry us too? Unlike carbon that naturally exists in the atmosphere, fluorinated gases are purely man-made. 

Thanks to the Montreal Protocol (an international treaty that aims at protecting the ozone layer from getting depleted by advocating for the phasing out of the production of ozone layer depleting substances), at  least most of these gases have been continually phased out. 

We went from Hydrochlorofluorocarbons to Hydrofluorocarbons and currently, we are using hydrofluoroolefins which have shorter lifespans in the atmosphere as well as low GWPs. Most of these gases are used in refrigerators, air conditioning systems and as propellants in aerosol cans. 

Fluorinated gases: a major concern. 

However, many nations in the developing world have not completely phased-out the use of fluorinated gases such as Hydrofluorocarbons. This means that fluorinated gases should be of much more concern than carbon dioxide since their GWPs are thousands of times more. With a significant amount of fluorinated gases in the atmosphere, the earth would heat up to levels never seen before causing a lot of damage to the planet. 

The fact that we still haven’t found permanent solutions to other greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide and ground-level ozone should be of great concern. All of these gases have a higher GWPs than carbon dioxide.

The current focus on carbon has denied most people a chance to learn and understand about other greenhouse gases. It’s quite surprising that even water vapor is a natural greenhouse gas that we hardly talk about let alone the ground-level ozone formed through vehicle fumes reactions with sunlight. This raises an important question—is tackling carbon emissions going to limit global temperatures rise to way below 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100?

Feature Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

Anne Muthoni

Anne Muthoni from Kenya is a climate change enthusiast who strongly believes in climate education as the key to climate mitigation. As a crew lead at Earth Guardians Kenya, Anne has been able to lead her team into successfully implementing the ‘Art Meets Plastic’ project. She is a Youth Compact Champion, climate change drama facilitator at Youth Arts Mentorship Initiative and aims to use her art to promote climate education among young people.

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How Greenhouse Gases cause Climate Change

by Anne Muthoni Reading time: 3 min
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