The term greenhouse effect has some pretty negative connotations. On the one side, there are those who hate all the tree-hugging hippies who are against progress and technology, and think that global warming is a giant scam developed by Al Gore in order to ruin the United States’ economy and turn the country into a communist paradise. On the other side, there are those that think that the evil meat-eating fascists are trying to destroy the planet and the only way to stop them is by buying all the coolest, newest, greenest, most environmentally-friendly items.
However, truth be told, if it were not for greenhouse gases trapping heat in the atmosphere, the world would be a very cold place. In fact, greenhouse gases are what keeps the earth warm through a process called the greenhouse effect.
The earth gets energy from the sun in the form of sunlight. The earth’s surface absorbs some of this energy and heats up. This is why the surface of a road can feel hot even after the sun has gone down. The earth cools down by giving off a different form of energy called infrared radiation. Before this radiation can escape to outer space, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere absorb some of it, which in turn makes the atmosphere warmer.
However, it does not have to be quite so warm here on planet earth and it is best to mitigate the environmental effects of human activities when possible. In order to do this, the discussion needs to shift to other types of greenhouse gases because CO2 is relatively harmless when compared with many others. Furthermore, CO2 gases can be dramatically reduced simply by planting a whole lot more plants and not destroying the ones that already exist and/or ending the world’s love affair with fossil fuels.
A few of the other types of much more concerning greenhouse gases include:
- Methane: produced via:
- livestock production – sheep and cows produce methane as a byproduct of their digestion process and methane as released as manure decomposes
- trash decomposition in landfills
- sourcing and transport of natural gas – natural gas is mostly methane and can easily leak through pipes
- coal mining – pockets of methane are released as the earth is mined
Methane stays in the atmosphere for 12 years and traps 20 times more heat than CO2.
2. Nitrous Oxide: produced via:
- farming – the introduction of synthetic nitrogen which is oxidised by plants
- the burning of fossil fuels
- some manufacturing and industrial processes
Nitrous oxide stays in the atmosphere for 114 years and traps 298 times more heat than CO2.
3. Fluorinated gases: produced via:
- leaking coolants – produced by certain devices, such as refrigerators and air conditioners
- manufacturing and industry – computer chip production is a major contributor
The length of time that these gases stay in the atmosphere varies, but ranges from several to thousands of years. The heat-trapping properties also vary but range from a few hundred to 23,000 times that of CO2. It is expected that fluorinated gas production will increase dramatically faster than any other greenhouse gases.
So, the greenhouse effect is a cause for concern, but it also a fundamental component of our existence. As such, it is best when we stop focusing on how to stop this process and start focusing on how we as humans can make more conscientious decisions in order to preserve this special place we live and let mother nature do her job.