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Greenhouse gas

refer to caption and image description
Greenhouse effect schematic showing energy flows between space, the atmosphere, and Earth's surface. Energy influx and emittance are expressed in watts per square meter (W/m2).

A greenhouse gas (sometimes abbreviated GHG) is a gas in an atmosphere that absorbs and emits radiation within the thermal infrared range. This process is the fundamental cause of the greenhouse effect.[1] The primary greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Greenhouse gases greatly affect the temperature of the Earth; without them, Earth's surface would average about 33 °C colder, which is about 59 °F below the present average of 14 °C (57 °F).[2][3][4]

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (taken as the year 1750), the burning of fossil fuels and extensive clearing of native forests has contributed to a 40% increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, from 280 to 392.6 parts per million (ppm) in 2012.[5][6] and has now reached 400 ppm in the northern hemisphere. This increase has occurred despite the uptake of a large portion of the emissions by various natural "sinks" involved in the carbon cycle.[7][8] Anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO
) emissions (i.e., emissions produced by human activities) come from combustion of carbon-based fuels, principally wood, coal, oil, and natural gas.[9] Under ongoing greenhouse gas emissions, available Earth System Models project that the Earth's surface temperature could exceed historical analogs as early as 2047 affecting most ecosystems on Earth and the livelihoods of over 3 billion people worldwide.[10] Greenhouse gases also trigger ocean bio-geochemical changes with broad ramifications in marine systems.[11]

In the Solar System, the atmospheres of Venus, Mars, and Titan also contain gases that cause a greenhouse effect, though Titan's atmosphere has an anti-greenhouse effect which reduces the warming.


  • Gases in Earth's atmosphere 1
    • Greenhouse gases 1.1
    • Non-greenhouse gases 1.2
    • Indirect radiative effects 1.3
    • Contribution of clouds to Earth's greenhouse effect 1.4
  • Impacts on the overall greenhouse effect 2
    • Proportion of direct effects at a given moment 2.1
    • Atmospheric lifetime 2.2
    • Radiative forcing 2.3
    • Global warming potential 2.4
  • Natural and anthropogenic sources 3
    • Ice cores 3.1
    • Changes since the Industrial Revolution 3.2
  • Anthropogenic greenhouse gases 4
    • Sectors 4.1
  • Role of water vapor 5
  • Direct greenhouse gas emissions 6
    • Regional and national attribution of emissions 6.1
    • Land-use change 6.2
    • Greenhouse gas intensity 6.3
    • Cumulative and historical emissions 6.4
    • Changes since a particular base year 6.5
    • Annual emissions 6.6
    • Top emitters 6.7
      • Annual 6.7.1
      • Cumulative 6.7.2
    • Embedded emissions 6.8
    • Effect of policy 6.9
    • Projections 6.10
    • Relative CO2 emission from various fuels 6.11
  • Life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions of energy sources 7
  • Removal from the atmosphere ("sinks") 8
    • Natural processes 8.1
    • Negative emissions 8.2
  • History of scientific research 9
  • See also 10
  • Notes and references 11
  • Bibliography 12
  • External links 13

Gases in Earth's atmosphere

Greenhouse gases

refer to caption and adjacent text
Atmospheric absorption and scattering at different wavelengths of electromagnetic waves. The largest absorption band of carbon dioxide is in the infrared.

Greenhouse gases are those that can absorb and emit infrared radiation,[1] but not radiation in or near the visible spectrum. In order, the most abundant greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere are:

Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are determined by the balance between sources (emissions of the gas from human activities and natural systems) and sinks (the removal of the gas from the atmosphere by conversion to a different chemical compound).[12] The proportion of an emission remaining in the atmosphere after a specified time is the "airborne fraction" (AF). More precisely, the annual AF is the ratio of the atmospheric increase in a given year to that year's total emissions. For CO
the AF over the last 50 years (1956–2006) has been increasing at 0.25 ± 0.21%/year.[13]

Non-greenhouse gases

Although contributing to many other physical and chemical reactions, the major atmospheric constituents, nitrogen (N
), oxygen (O
), and argon (Ar), are not greenhouse gases. This is because molecules containing two atoms of the same element such as N
and O
and monatomic molecules such as argon (Ar) have no net change in their dipole moment when they vibrate and hence are almost totally unaffected by infrared radiation. Although molecules containing two atoms of different elements such as carbon monoxide (CO) or hydrogen chloride (HCl) absorb IR, these molecules are short-lived in the atmosphere owing to their reactivity and solubility. Because they do not contribute significantly to the greenhouse effect, they are usually omitted when discussing greenhouse gases.

Indirect radiative effects

world map of carbon monoxide concentrations in the lower atmosphere
The false colors in this image represent levels of carbon monoxide in the lower atmosphere, ranging from about 390 parts per billion (dark brown pixels), to 220 parts per billion (red pixels), to 50 parts per billion (blue pixels).[14]

Some gases have indirect radiative effects (whether or not they are a greenhouse gas themselves). This happens in two main ways. One way is that when they break down in the atmosphere they produce another greenhouse gas. For example methane and carbon monoxide (CO) are oxidized to give carbon dioxide (and methane oxidation also produces water vapor; that will be considered below). Oxidation of CO to CO
directly produces an unambiguous increase in radiative forcing although the reason is subtle. The peak of the thermal IR emission from the Earth's surface is very close to a strong vibrational absorption band of CO
(667 cm−1). On the other hand, the single CO vibrational band only absorbs IR at much higher frequencies (2145 cm−1), where the ~300 K thermal emission of the surface is at least a factor of ten lower. On the other hand, oxidation of methane to CO
which requires reactions with the OH radical, produces an instantaneous reduction, since CO
is a weaker greenhouse gas than methane; but it has a longer lifetime. As described below this is not the whole story, since the oxidations of CO and CH
are intertwined by both consuming OH radicals. In any case, the calculation of the total radiative effect needs to include both the direct and indirect forcing.

A second type of indirect effect happens when chemical reactions in the atmosphere involving these gases change the concentrations of greenhouse gases. For example, the destruction of

  • BBC News — Thawing Siberian bogs are releasing more methane
  • Textbook on Eddy Covariance Measurements of Gas Emissions
Methane emissions
  • Carbon Emissions World Map in 2009 Mark McCormick and Paul Scruton, The Guardian February 2011
  • International Energy Annual: Reserves
  • International Energy Annual 2003: Carbon Dioxide Emissions
  • International Energy Annual 2003: Notes and Sources for Table H.1co2 (Metric tons of carbon dioxide can be converted to metric tons of carbon equivalent by multiplying by 12/44)
  • Textbook on Eddy Covariance Measurements of Gas Emissions
  • Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide at NOAA
  • NOAA Paleoclimatology Program — Vostok Ice Core
  • NOAA CMDL CCGG — Interactive Atmospheric Data Visualization NOAA CO
  • Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC)
    • Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre FAQ Includes links to Carbon Dioxide statistics
  • Little Green Data Book 2007, World Bank. Lists CO
    statistics by country, including per capita and by country income class.
  • Database of carbon emissions of power plants
  • NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory
  • The Carbon Bag: the carbon dioxide emission of a typical British home
Carbon dioxide emissions
  • The official greenhouse gas emissions data of developed countries from the UNFCCC
  • Center for Permafrost - University of Copenhagen
  • Greenhouse gas at DMOZ
  • Annual Greenhouse Gas Index (AGGI) from NOAA
  • Atmospheric spectra of GHGs and other trace gases
  • How Much Greenhouse Gas Does the United States Emit?
  • Grist article on convenient summary from various sources incl IPCC of greenhouse gas emissions * *
  • Summary of Greenhouse gas emissions at Google Docs
  • Greenhouse Gases
  • Greenhouse Gases Sources, Levels, Study results — University of Michigan; findings
  • EM-1 | Greenhouse gas emissions research project

External links

  • Zhou, Yiqin (2011). Compar[ison of] Fresh or Ensiled Fodders (e.g., Grass, Legume, Corn) on the Production of Greenhouse Gases Following Enteric Fermentation in Beef Cattle. Rouyn-Noranda, Qué.: Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue. N.B.: Research report.
  • CDIAC (2012), Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC), Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA: CDIAC 
  •   (pb: )
  •   (pb: )
  • Van Dijk, P.; Zhang, J.; Jun, W.; Kuenzer, C.; WOLF, K.H. (2011). "Assessment of the contribution of in-situ combustion of coal to greenhouse gas emission; based on a comparison of Chinese mining information to previous remote sensing estimates". International Journal of Coal Geology 86 (1 Special Issue RS/GIS): 108–119.  


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Notes and references

See also

In the late 19th century scientists experimentally discovered that N
and O
do not absorb infrared radiation (called, at that time, "dark radiation"). On the contrary, water (both as true vapor and condensed in the form of microscopic droplets suspended in clouds) and CO
and other poly-atomic gaseous molecules do absorb infrared radiation. In the early 20th century researchers realized that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere made the Earth's overall temperature higher than it would be without them. During the late 20th century, a scientific consensus evolved that increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere cause a substantial rise in global temperatures and changes to other parts of the climate system,[132] with consequences for the environment and for human health.

History of scientific research

A number of technologies remove greenhouse gases emissions from the atmosphere. Most widely analysed are those that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, either to geologic formations such as bio-energy with carbon capture and storage[128][129][130] and carbon dioxide air capture,[130] or to the soil as in the case with biochar.[130] The IPCC has pointed out that many long-term climate scenario models require large scale manmade negative emissions to avoid serious climate change.[131]

Negative emissions

  • a chemical reaction within the atmosphere. For example, methane is oxidized by reaction with naturally occurring hydroxyl radical, OH· and degraded to CO
    and water vapor (CO
    from the oxidation of methane is not included in the methane Global warming potential). Other chemical reactions include solution and solid phase chemistry occurring in atmospheric aerosols.
  • a physical exchange between the atmosphere and the other compartments of the planet. An example is the mixing of atmospheric gases into the oceans.
  • a chemical change at the interface between the atmosphere and the other compartments of the planet. This is the case for CO
    , which is reduced by photosynthesis of plants, and which, after dissolving in the oceans, reacts to form carbonic acid and bicarbonate and carbonate ions (see ocean acidification).
  • a photochemical change. Halocarbons are dissociated by UV light releasing Cl· and F· as free radicals in the stratosphere with harmful effects on ozone (halocarbons are generally too stable to disappear by chemical reaction in the atmosphere).
  • a physical change (condensation and precipitation remove water vapor from the atmosphere).

Greenhouse gases can be removed from the atmosphere by various processes, as a consequence of:

Natural processes

Removal from the atmosphere ("sinks")

Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by electricity source.
Technology Description 50th percentile
(g CO
Hydroelectric reservoir 4
Ocean Energy wave and tidal 8
Wind onshore 12
Nuclear various generation II reactor types 16
Biomass various 18
Solar thermal parabolic trough 22
Geothermal hot dry rock 45
Solar PV Polycrystaline silicon 46
Natural gas various combined cycle turbines without scrubbing 469
Coal various generator types without scrubbing 1001
[127] of all total life cycle emissions studies conducted, was as follows.percentile emission value, that fell within the 50th CO
in 2011, found that, the IPCC emissions by the CO
A literature review of numerous energy sources

Life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions of energy sources

Mass of carbon dioxide emitted per quantity of energy for various fuels[126]
Fuel name CO

(lbs/106 Btu)

Natural gas 117 50.30
Liquefied petroleum gas 139 59.76
Propane 139 59.76
Aviation gasoline 153 65.78
Automobile gasoline 156 67.07
Kerosene 159 68.36
Fuel oil 161 69.22
Tires/tire derived fuel 189 81.26
Wood and wood waste 195 83.83
Coal (bituminous) 205 88.13
Coal (sub-bituminous) 213 91.57
Coal (lignite) 215 92.43
Petroleum coke 225 96.73
Tar-sand Bitumen
Coal (anthracite) 227 97.59

One liter of gasoline, when used as a fuel, produces 2.32 kg (about 1300 liters or 1.3 cubic meters) of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. One US gallon produces 19.4 lb (1,291.5 gallons or 172.65 cubic feet)[123][124][125]

Relative CO
emission from various fuels

A wide range of projections of future GHG emissions have been produced.[119] Rogner et al. (2007)[120] assessed the scientific literature on GHG projections. Rogner et al. (2007)[87] concluded that unless energy policies changed substantially, the world would continue to depend on fossil fuels until 2025–2030. Projections suggest that more than 80% of the world's energy will come from fossil fuels. This conclusion was based on "much evidence" and "high agreement" in the literature.[87] Projected annual energy-related CO
emissions in 2030 were 40–110% higher than in 2000, with two-thirds of the increase originating in developing countries.[87] Projected annual per capita emissions in developed country regions remained substantially lower (2.8–5.1 tonnes CO
) than those in developed country regions (9.6–15.1 tonnes CO
).[121] Projections consistently showed increase in annual world GHG emissions (the "Kyoto" gases,[122] measured in CO
) of 25–90% by 2030, compared to 2000.[87]


Countries and regions listed in Annex I of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (i.e., the OECD and former planned economies of the Soviet Union) are required to submit periodic assessments to the UNFCCC of actions they are taking to address climate change.[118]:3 Analysis by the UNFCCC (2011)[118]:8 suggested that policies and measures undertaken by Annex I Parties may have produced emission savings of 1.5 thousand Tg CO
in the year 2010, with most savings made in the energy sector. The projected emissions saving of 1.5 thousand Tg CO
-eq is measured against a hypothetical "economics of climate change mitigation#Baselines" of Annex I emissions, i.e., projected Annex I emissions in the absence of policies and measures. The total projected Annex I saving of 1.5 thousand CO
-eq does not include emissions savings in seven of the Annex I Parties.[118]:8

Governments have taken action to reduce GHG emissions (climate change mitigation). Assessments of policy effectiveness have included work by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,[112] International Energy Agency,[113][114] and United Nations Environment Programme.[115] Policies implemented by governments have included[116][117][118] national and regional targets to reduce emissions, promoting energy efficiency, and support for renewable energy.

Effect of policy

Davis and Caldeira (2010)[110]:4 found that a substantial proportion of CO
emissions are traded internationally. The net effect of trade was to export emissions from China and other emerging markets to consumers in the US, Japan, and Western Europe. Based on annual emissions data from the year 2004, and on a per-capita consumption basis, the top-5 emitting countries were found to be (in tCO
per person, per year): Luxembourg (34.7), the US (22.0), Singapore (20.2), Australia (16.7), and Canada (16.6).[110]:5 Carbon Trust research revealed that approximately 25% of all CO2 emissions from human activities 'flow' (i.e. are imported or exported) from one country to another. Major developed economies were found to be typically net importers of embodied carbon emissions — with UK consumption emissions 34% higher than production emissions, and Germany (29%), Japan (19%) and the USA (13%) also significant net importers of embodied emissions.[111]

One way of attributing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is to measure the embedded emissions (also referred to as "embodied emissions") of goods that are being consumed. Emissions are usually measured according to production, rather than consumption.[109] For example, in the main international treaty on climate change (the UNFCCC), countries report on emissions produced within their borders, e.g., the emissions produced from burning fossil fuels.[101]:179[110]:1 Under a production-based accounting of emissions, embedded emissions on imported goods are attributed to the exporting, rather than the importing, country. Under a consumption-based accounting of emissions, embedded emissions on imported goods are attributed to the importing country, rather than the exporting, country.

Embedded emissions

Top-10 cumulative energy-related CO
emitters between 1850–2008[108]
Country % of world
Metric tonnes
per person
United States 28.5 1,132.7
China 9.36 85.4
Russian Federation 7.95 677.2
Germany 6.78 998.9
United Kingdom 5.73 1,127.8
Japan 3.88 367
France 2.73 514.9
India 2.52 26.7
Canada 2.17 789.2
Ukraine 2.13 556.4


Top-10 annual energy-related CO
emitters for the year 2009[107]
Country % of global total
annual emissions
Tonnes of GHG
per capita
People's Rep. of China 23.6 5.13
United States 17.9 16.9
India 5.5 1.37
Russian Federation 5.3 10.8
Japan 3.8 8.6
Germany 2.6 9.2
Islamic Rep. of Iran 1.8 7.3
Canada 1.8 15.4
Korea 1.8 10.6
United Kingdom 1.6 7.5

In 2009, the annual top ten emitting countries accounted for about two-thirds of the world's annual energy-related CO


Bar graph of annual per capita CO
emissions from fuel combustion for 140 countries in 2009.
Bar graph of cumulative energy-related per capita CO
emissions between 1850–2008 for 185 countries.

Top emitters

The GHG footprint, or greenhouse gas footprint, refers to the amount of GHG that are emitted during the creation of products or services. It is more comprehensive than the commonly used carbon footprint, which measures only carbon dioxide, one of many greenhouse gases.

Energy statistics for fast growing economies are less accurate than those for the industrialized countries. For China's annual emissions in 2008, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency estimated an uncertainty range of about 10%.[104]

Annual per capita emissions in the industrialized countries are typically as much as ten times the average in developing countries.[78]:144 Due to China's fast economic development, its annual per capita emissions are quickly approaching the levels of those in the Annex I group of the Kyoto Protocol (i.e., the developed countries excluding the USA).[104] Other countries with fast growing emissions are South Korea, Iran, and Australia. On the other hand, annual per capita emissions of the EU-15 and the USA are gradually decreasing over time.[104] Emissions in Russia and the Ukraine have decreased fastest since 1990 due to economic restructuring in these countries.[105]

Per capita anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by country for the year 2000 including land-use change.

Annual emissions

Using different base years for measuring emissions has an effect on estimates of national contributions to global warming.[100]:17–18[103] This can be calculated by dividing a country's highest contribution to global warming starting from a particular base year, by that country's minimum contribution to global warming starting from a particular base year. Choosing between different base years of 1750, 1900, 1950, and 1990 has a significant effect for most countries.[100]:17–18 Within the G8 group of countries, it is most significant for the UK, France and Germany. These countries have a long history of CO
emissions (see the section on Cumulative and historical emissions).

Between 1970–2004, global growth in annual CO
emissions was driven by North America, Asia, and the Middle East.[102] The sharp acceleration in CO
emissions since 2000 to more than a 3% increase per year (more than 2 ppm per year) from 1.1% per year during the 1990s is attributable to the lapse of formerly declining trends in carbon intensity of both developing and developed nations. China was responsible for most of global growth in emissions during this period. Localised plummeting emissions associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union have been followed by slow emissions growth in this region due to more efficient energy use, made necessary by the increasing proportion of it that is exported.[76] In comparison, methane has not increased appreciably, and N
by 0.25% y−1.

Changes since a particular base year

Non-OECD countries accounted for 42% of cumulative energy-related CO
emissions between 1890–2007.[101]:179–180 Over this time period, the US accounted for 28% of emissions; the EU, 23%; Russia, 11%; China, 9%; other OECD countries, 5%; Japan, 4%; India, 3%; and the rest of the world, 18%.[101]:179–180

Including biotic emissions brings about the same controversy mentioned earlier regarding carbon sinks and land-use change (Banuri et al., 1996, pp. 93–94).[93] The actual calculation of net emissions is very complex, and is affected by how carbon sinks are allocated between regions and the dynamics of the climate system.

The table above to the left is based on Banuri et al. (1996, p. 94).[93] Overall, developed countries accounted for 83.8% of industrial CO
emissions over this time period, and 67.8% of total CO
emissions. Developing countries accounted for industrial CO
emissions of 16.2% over this time period, and 32.2% of total CO
emissions. The estimate of total CO
emissions includes biotic carbon emissions, mainly from deforestation. Banuri et al. (1996, p. 94)[93] calculated per capita cumulative emissions based on then-current population. The ratio in per capita emissions between industrialized countries and developing countries was estimated at more than 10 to 1.

Top-5 historic CO
contributors by region over the years 1800 to 1988 (in %)
Region Industrial
OECD North America 33.2 29.7
OECD Europe 26.1 16.6
Former USSR 14.1 12.5
China   5.5   6.0
Eastern Europe   5.5   4.8

Cumulative anthropogenic (i.e., human-emitted) emissions of CO
from fossil fuel use are a major cause of global warming,[99] and give some indication of which countries have contributed most to human-induced climate change.[100]:15

Cumulative energy-related CO
emissions between the years 1850–2005 grouped into low-income, middle-income, high-income, the EU-15, and the OECD countries.
Cumulative energy-related CO
emissions between the years 1850–2005 for individual countries.
Map of cumulative per capita anthropogenic atmospheric CO
emissions by country. Cumulative emissions include land use change, and are measured between the years 1950 and 2000.
Regional trends in annual CO
emissions from fuel combustion between 1971 and 2009.
Regional trends in annual per capita CO
emissions from fuel combustion between 1971 and 2009.

Cumulative and historical emissions

Greenhouse gas intensity is a ratio between greenhouse gas emissions and another metric, e.g., gross domestic product (GDP) or energy use. The terms "carbon intensity" and "emissions intensity" are also sometimes used.[98] GHG intensities may be calculated using market exchange rates (MER) or purchasing power parity (PPP) (Banuri et al., 1996, p. 96).[93] Calculations based on MER show large differences in intensities between developed and developing countries, whereas calculations based on PPP show smaller differences.

Refer to caption.
Greenhouse gas intensity in the year 2000, including land-use change.

Refer to caption.
Carbon intensity of GDP (using PPP) for different regions, 1982-2011.

Refer to caption.
Carbon intensity of GDP (using MER) for different regions, 1982-2011.

Greenhouse gas intensity

There are substantial uncertainties in the measurement of net carbon emissions.[97] Additionally, there is controversy over how carbon sinks should be allocated between different regions and over time (Banuri et al., 1996, p. 93).[93] For instance, concentrating on more recent changes in carbon sinks is likely to favour those regions that have deforested earlier, e.g., Europe.

Land-use change, e.g., the clearing of forests for agricultural use, can affect the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere by altering how much carbon flows out of the atmosphere into carbon sinks.[96] Accounting for land-use change can be understood as an attempt to measure "net" emissions, i.e., gross emissions from all GHG sources minus the removal of emissions from the atmosphere by carbon sinks (Banuri et al., 1996, pp. 92–93).[93]

Refer to caption.
Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, forestry and other land use, 1970-2010.

Land-use change

Another measurement is of per capita emissions. This divides a country's total annual emissions by its mid-year population.[91]:370 Per capita emissions may be based on historical or annual emissions (Banuri et al., 1996, pp. 106–107).[93]

Emissions may also be measured across shorter time periods. Emissions changes may, for example, be measured against a base year of 1990. 1990 was used in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as the base year for emissions, and is also used in the Kyoto Protocol (some gases are also measured from the year 1995).[78]:146,149 A country's emissions may also be reported as a proportion of global emissions for a particular year.

The national accounts balance would be positively related to carbon emissions. The national accounts balance shows the difference between exports and imports. For many richer nations, such as the United States, the accounts balance is negative because more goods are imported than they are exported. This is mostly due to the fact that it is cheaper to produce goods outside of developed countries, leading the economies of developed countries to become increasingly dependent on services and not goods. We believed that a positive accounts balance would means that more production was occurring in a country, so more factories working would increase carbon emission levels.(Holtz-Eakin, 1995, pp.;85;101).[95]

Emissions may be measured over long time periods. This measurement type is called historical or cumulative emissions. Cumulative emissions give some indication of who is responsible for the build-up in the atmospheric concentration of GHGs (IEA, 2007, p. 199).[94]

These different measures are sometimes used by different countries to assert various policy/ethical positions on climate change (Banuri et al., 1996, p. 94).[93] This use of different measures leads to a lack of comparability, which is problematic when monitoring progress towards targets. There are arguments for the adoption of a common measurement tool, or at least the development of communication between different tools.[92]

  • Definition of measurement boundaries: Emissions can be attributed geographically, to the area where they were emitted (the territory principle) or by the activity principle to the territory produced the emissions. These two principles result in different totals when measuring, for example, electricity importation from one country to another, or emissions at an international airport.
  • Time horizon of different GHGs: Contribution of a given GHG is reported as a CO
    equivalent. The calculation to determine this takes into account how long that gas remains in the atmosphere. This is not always known accurately and calculations must be regularly updated to reflect new information.
  • What sectors are included in the calculation (e.g., energy industries, industrial processes, agriculture etc.): There is often a conflict between transparency and availability of data.
  • The measurement protocol itself: This may be via direct measurement or estimation. The four main methods are the emission factor-based method, mass balance method, predictive emissions monitoring systems, and continuous emissions monitoring systems. These methods differ in accuracy, cost, and usability.

There are several different ways of measuring GHG emissions, for example, see World Bank (2010)[91]:362 for tables of national emissions data. Some variables that have been reported[92] include:

This figure shows the relative fraction of anthropogenic greenhouse gases coming from each of eight categories of sources, as estimated by the Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research version 3.2, fast track 2000 project [1]. These values are intended to provide a snapshot of global annual greenhouse gas emissions in the year 2000. The top panel shows the sum over all anthropogenic greenhouse gases, weighted by their global warming potential over the next 100 years. This consists of 72% carbon dioxide, 18% methane, 8% nitrous oxide and 1% other gases. Lower panels show the comparable information for each of these three primary greenhouse gases, with the same coloring of sectors as used in the top chart. Segments with less than 1% fraction are not labeled.

Regional and national attribution of emissions

At present, the primary source of CO
emissions is the burning of coal, natural gas, and petroleum for electricity and heat.[90]

Between the period 1970 to 2004, GHG emissions (measured in CO
)[86] increased at an average rate of 1.6% per year, with CO
emissions from the use of fossil fuels growing at a rate of 1.9% per year.[87][88] Total anthropogenic emissions at the end of 2009 were estimated at 49.5 gigatonnes CO
-equivalent.[89]:15 These emissions include CO
from fossil fuel use and from land use, as well as emissions of methane, nitrous oxide and other GHGs covered by the Kyoto Protocol.

Direct greenhouse gas emissions

The average residence time of a water molecule in the atmosphere is only about nine days, compared to years or centuries for other greenhouse gases such as CH
and CO
.[84] Thus, water vapor responds to and amplifies effects of the other greenhouse gases. The Clausius–Clapeyron relation establishes that more water vapor will be present per unit volume at elevated temperatures. This and other basic principles indicate that warming associated with increased concentrations of the other greenhouse gases also will increase the concentration of water vapor (assuming that the relative humidity remains approximately constant; modeling and observational studies find that this is indeed so). Because water vapor is a greenhouse gas, this results in further warming and so is a "positive feedback" that amplifies the original warming. Eventually other earth processes offset these positive feedbacks, stabilizing the global temperature at a new equilibrium and preventing the loss of Earth's water through a Venus-like runaway greenhouse effect.[85]

[18] Water vapor concentrations fluctuate regionally, but human activity does not significantly affect water vapor concentrations except at local scales, such as near irrigated fields. The atmospheric concentration of vapor is highly variable and depends largely on temperature, from less than 0.01% in extremely cold regions up to 3% by mass at in saturated air at about 32 °C.(see Relative humidity#other important facts) [83]

Increasing water vapor in the stratosphere at Boulder, Colorado.

Role of water vapor

According to UNEP global tourism is closely linked to climate change. Tourism is a significant contributor to the increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Tourism accounts for about 50% of traffic movements. Rapidly expanding air traffic contributes about 2.5% of the production of CO
. The number of international travelers is expected to increase from 594 million in 1996 to 1.6 billion by 2020, adding greatly to the problem unless steps are taken to reduce emissions.[82]



Although CFCs are greenhouse gases, they are regulated by the Montreal Protocol, which was motivated by CFCs' contribution to ozone depletion rather than by their contribution to global warming. Note that ozone depletion has only a minor role in greenhouse warming though the two processes often are confused in the media.

Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide (N
) and three groups of fluorinated gases (sulfur hexafluoride (SF
), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and perfluorocarbons (PFCs)) are the major anthropogenic greenhouse gases,[78]:147[79] and are regulated under the Kyoto Protocol international treaty, which came into force in 2005.[80] Emissions limitations specified in the Kyoto Protocol expire in 2012.[80] The Cancún agreement, agreed in 2010, includes voluntary pledges made by 76 countries to control emissions.[81] At the time of the agreement, these 76 countries were collectively responsible for 85% of annual global emissions.[81]

Seven main fossil fuel
combustion sources
Liquid fuels (e.g., gasoline, fuel oil) 36%
Solid fuels (e.g., coal) 35%
Gaseous fuels (e.g., natural gas) 20%
Cement production  3 %
Flaring gas industrially and at wells < 1%  
Non-fuel hydrocarbons < 1%  
"International bunker fuels" of transport
not included in national inventories[77]
 4 %
[76] from fossil fuel combustion are (with percentage contributions for 2000–2004):CO
The seven sources of
  • burning of fossil fuels and deforestation leading to higher carbon dioxide concentrations in the air. Land use change (mainly deforestation in the tropics) account for up to one third of total anthropogenic CO
  • livestock enteric fermentation and manure management,[75] paddy rice farming, land use and wetland changes, pipeline losses, and covered vented landfill emissions leading to higher methane atmospheric concentrations. Many of the newer style fully vented septic systems that enhance and target the fermentation process also are sources of atmospheric methane.
  • use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in refrigeration systems, and use of CFCs and halons in fire suppression systems and manufacturing processes.
  • agricultural activities, including the use of fertilizers, that lead to higher nitrous oxide (N
    ) concentrations.

The main sources of greenhouse gases due to human activity are:

It is likely that anthropogenic (i.e., human-induced) warming, such as that due to elevated greenhouse gas levels, has had a discernible influence on many physical and biological systems.[72] Future warming is projected to have a range of impacts, including sea level rise,[73] increased frequencies and severities of some extreme weather events,[73] loss of biodiversity,[74] and regional changes in agricultural productivity.[74]

Since about 1750 human activity has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Measured atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are currently 100 ppm higher than pre-industrial levels.[69] Natural sources of carbon dioxide are more than 20 times greater than sources due to human activity,[70] but over periods longer than a few years natural sources are closely balanced by natural sinks, mainly photosynthesis of carbon compounds by plants and marine plankton. As a result of this balance, the atmospheric mole fraction of carbon dioxide remained between 260 and 280 parts per million for the 10,000 years between the end of the last glacial maximum and the start of the industrial era.[71]

This graph shows changes in the annual greenhouse gas index (AGGI) between 1979 and 2011.[67] The AGGI measures the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere based on their ability to cause changes in the Earth's climate.[67]
This bar graph shows global greenhouse gas emissions by sector from 1990 to 2005, measured in carbon dioxide equivalents.[68]

Anthropogenic greenhouse gases

The other greenhouse gases produced from human activity show similar increases in both amount and rate of increase. Many observations are available online in a variety of Atmospheric Chemistry Observational Databases.

Today, the stock of carbon in the atmosphere increases by more than 3 million tonnes per annum (0.04%) compared with the existing stock. This increase is the result of human activities by burning fossil fuels, deforestation and forest degradation in tropical and boreal regions.[66]

Recent data also shows that the concentration is increasing at a higher rate. In the 1960s, the average annual increase was only 37% of what it was in 2000 through 2007.[65]

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the concentrations of most of the greenhouse gases have increased. For example, the mole fraction of carbon dioxide has increased from 280 ppm by about 36% to 380 ppm, or 100 ppm over modern pre-industrial levels. The first 50 ppm increase took place in about 200 years, from the start of the Industrial Revolution to around 1973.; however the next 50 ppm increase took place in about 33 years, from 1973 to 2006.[64]

Refer to caption
Major greenhouse gas trends.

Refer to caption
Recent year-to-year increase of atmospheric CO

Changes since the Industrial Revolution

Measurements from Antarctic ice cores show that before industrial emissions started atmospheric CO
mole fractions were about 280 parts per million (ppm), and stayed between 260 and 280 during the preceding ten thousand years.[60] Carbon dioxide mole fractions in the atmosphere have gone up by approximately 35 percent since the 1900s, rising from 280 parts per million by volume to 387 parts per million in 2009. One study using evidence from stomata of fossilized leaves suggests greater variability, with carbon dioxide mole fractions above 300 ppm during the period seven to ten thousand years ago,[61] though others have argued that these findings more likely reflect calibration or contamination problems rather than actual CO
variability.[62][63] Because of the way air is trapped in ice (pores in the ice close off slowly to form bubbles deep within the firn) and the time period represented in each ice sample analyzed, these figures represent averages of atmospheric concentrations of up to a few centuries rather than annual or decadal levels.

Ice cores

Ice cores provide evidence for greenhouse gas concentration variations over the past 800,000 years (see the following section). Both CO
and CH
vary between glacial and interglacial phases, and concentrations of these gases correlate strongly with temperature. Direct data does not exist for periods earlier than those represented in the ice core record, a record that indicates CO
mole fractions stayed within a range of 180 ppm to 280 ppm throughout the last 800,000 years, until the increase of the last 250 years. However, various proxies and modeling suggests larger variations in past epochs; 500 million years ago CO
levels were likely 10 times higher than now.[52] Indeed higher CO
concentrations are thought to have prevailed throughout most of the Phanerozoic eon, with concentrations four to six times current concentrations during the Mesozoic era, and ten to fifteen times current concentrations during the early Palaeozoic era until the middle of the Devonian period, about 400 Ma.[53][54][55] The spread of land plants is thought to have reduced CO
concentrations during the late Devonian, and plant activities as both sources and sinks of CO
have since been important in providing stabilising feedbacks.[56] Earlier still, a 200-million year period of intermittent, widespread glaciation extending close to the equator (Snowball Earth) appears to have been ended suddenly, about 550 Ma, by a colossal volcanic outgassing that raised the CO
concentration of the atmosphere abruptly to 12%, about 350 times modern levels, causing extreme greenhouse conditions and carbonate deposition as limestone at the rate of about 1 mm per day.[57] This episode marked the close of the Precambrian eon, and was succeeded by the generally warmer conditions of the Phanerozoic, during which multicellular animal and plant life evolved. No volcanic carbon dioxide emission of comparable scale has occurred since. In the modern era, emissions to the atmosphere from volcanoes are only about 1% of emissions from human sources.[57][58][59]

refer to caption and article text
400,000 years of ice core data

Relevant to radiative forcing and/or ozone depletion; all of the following have no natural sources and hence zero amounts pre-industrial[5]
Gas Recent
radiative forcing
236 ppt /
234 ppt
CFC-12 (CCl
527 ppt /
527 ppt
CFC-113 (Cl
74 ppt /
74 ppt
231 ppt /
210 ppt
HCFC-141b (CH
24 ppt /
21 ppt
HCFC-142b (CH
23 ppt /
21 ppt
Halon 1211 (CBrClF
4.1 ppt /
4.0 ppt
Halon 1301 (CBrClF
3.3 ppt /
3.3 ppt
HFC-134a (CH
75 ppt /
64 ppt
Carbon tetrachloride (CCl
85 ppt /
83 ppt
Sulfur hexafluoride (SF
7.79 ppt /[51]
7.39 ppt[51]
Other halocarbons Varies by
Halocarbons in total 0.3574
Current greenhouse gas concentrations[5]
Gas Pre-1750
concentration[42]!! Recent
concentration[43]!! Absolute increase
since 1750 !! Percentage
since 1750 !! Increased
radiative forcing
Carbon dioxide (CO
280 ppm[45] 395.4 ppm[46] 115.4 ppm 41.2% 1.88
Methane (CH
700 ppb[47] 1893 ppb /[48]
1762 ppb[48]
1193 ppb /
1062 ppb
170.4% /
Nitrous oxide (N
270 ppb[44][49] 326 ppb /[48]
324 ppb[48]
56 ppb /
54 ppb
20.7% /
ozone (O
237 ppb[42] 337 ppb[42] 100 ppb 42% 0.4[50]

Abbreviations used in the two tables below: ppm = parts-per-million; ppb = parts-per-billion; ppt = parts-per-trillion; W/m2 = watts per square metre

The 2007 Fourth Assessment Report compiled by the IPCC (AR4) noted that "changes in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols, land cover and solar radiation alter the energy balance of the climate system", and concluded that "increases in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations is very likely to have caused most of the increases in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century".[41] In AR4, "most of" is defined as more than 50%.

Aside from purely human-produced synthetic halocarbons, most greenhouse gases have both natural and human-caused sources. During the pre-industrial Holocene, concentrations of existing gases were roughly constant. In the industrial era, human activities have added greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.[39][40]

refer to caption and image description
This diagram shows a simplified representation of the contemporary global carbon cycle. Changes are measured in gigatons of carbon per year (GtC/y). Canadell et al. (2007) estimated the growth rate of global average atmospheric CO
for 2000–2006 as 1.93 parts-per-million per year (4.1 petagrams of carbon per year).[38]

refer to caption and article text
Top: Increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels as measured in the atmosphere and reflected in ice cores. Bottom: The amount of net carbon increase in the atmosphere, compared to carbon emissions from burning fossil fuel.

Natural and anthropogenic sources

The use of CFC-12 (except some essential uses) has been phased out due to its ozone depleting properties.[36] The phasing-out of less active HCFC-compounds will be completed in 2030.[37]

Atmospheric lifetime and GWP relative to CO
at different time horizon for various greenhouse gases.
Gas name Chemical
Global warming potential (GWP) for given time horizon
20-yr 100-yr 500-yr
Carbon dioxide CO
See above 1 1 1
Methane CH
12 72 25 7.6
Nitrous oxide N
114 289 298 153
CFC-12 CCl
100 11 000 10 900 5 200
12 5 160 1 810 549
Tetrafluoromethane CF
50 000 5 210 7 390 11 200
Hexafluoroethane C
10 000 8 630 12 200 18 200
Sulfur hexafluoride SF
3 200 16 300 22 800 32 600
Nitrogen trifluoride NF
740 12 300 17 200 20 700

Examples of the atmospheric lifetime and GWP relative to CO
for several greenhouse gases are given in the following table:[21]

Methane has an atmospheric lifetime of 12 ± 3 years and a GWP of 72 over 20 years, 25 over 100 years and 7.6 over 500 years. The decrease in GWP at longer times is because methane is degraded to water and CO
through chemical reactions in the atmosphere.

The global warming potential (GWP) depends on both the efficiency of the molecule as a greenhouse gas and its atmospheric lifetime. GWP is measured relative to the same mass of CO
and evaluated for a specific timescale. Thus, if a gas has a high (positive) radiative forcing but also a short lifetime, it will have a large GWP on a 20-year scale but a small one on a 100-year scale. Conversely, if a molecule has a longer atmospheric lifetime than CO
its GWP will increase with the timescale considered. Carbon dioxide is defined to have a GWP of 1 over all time periods.

Global warming potential

A number of natural and man-made mechanisms can affect the global energy balance and force changes in the Earth's climate.[35] Greenhouse gases are one such mechanism.[35] Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere absorb and re-emit some of the outgoing energy radiated from the Earth's surface, causing that heat to be retained in the lower atmosphere.[35] As explained above, some greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for decades or even centuries, and therefore can affect the Earth's energy balance over a long time period.[35] Factors that influence Earth's energy balance can be quantified in terms of "radiative climate forcing."[35] Positive radiative forcing indicates warming (for example, by increasing incoming energy or decreasing the amount of energy that escapes to space), while negative forcing is associated with cooling.[35]

The Earth absorbs some of the radiant energy received from the sun, reflects some of it as light and reflects or radiates the rest back to space as heat.[35] The Earth's surface temperature depends on this balance between incoming and outgoing energy.[35] If this energy balance is shifted, the Earth's surface could become warmer or cooler, leading to a variety of changes in global climate.[35]

Radiative forcing

Carbon dioxide has a variable atmospheric lifetime, and cannot be specified precisely.[29] The atmospheric lifetime of CO
is estimated of the order of 30–95 years.[30] This figure accounts for CO
molecules being removed from the atmosphere by mixing into the ocean, photosynthesis, and other processes. However, this excludes the balancing fluxes of CO
into the atmosphere from the geological reservoirs, which have slower characteristic rates.[31] While more than half of the CO
emitted is removed from the atmosphere within a century, some fraction (about 20%) of emitted CO
remains in the atmosphere for many thousands of years.[32][33][34] Similar issues apply to other greenhouse gases, many of which have longer mean lifetimes than CO
. E.g., O2N has a mean atmospheric lifetime of 114 years.[21]

The atmospheric lifetime of a species therefore measures the time required to restore equilibrium following a sudden increase or decrease in its concentration in the atmosphere. Individual atoms or molecules may be lost or deposited to sinks such as the soil, the oceans and other waters, or vegetation and other biological systems, reducing the excess to background concentrations. The average time taken to achieve this is the mean lifetime.

Aside from water vapor, which has a residence time of about nine days,[26] major greenhouse gases are well-mixed, and take many years to leave the atmosphere.[27] Although it is not easy to know with precision how long it takes greenhouse gases to leave the atmosphere, there are estimates for the principal greenhouse gases. Jacob (1999)[28] defines the lifetime \tau of an atmospheric species X in a one-box model as the average time that a molecule of X remains in the box. Mathematically \tau can be defined as the ratio of the mass m (in kg) of X in the box to its removal rate, which is the sum of the flow of X out of the box (F_{out}), chemical loss of X (L), and deposition of X (D) (all in kg/s): \tau = \frac{m}{F_{out}+L+D}.[28] If one stopped pouring any of this gas into the box, then after a time \tau, its concentration would be about halved.

Atmospheric lifetime

It is not possible to state that a certain gas causes an exact percentage of the greenhouse effect. This is because some of the gases absorb and emit radiation at the same frequencies as others, so that the total greenhouse effect is not simply the sum of the influence of each gas. The higher ends of the ranges quoted are for each gas alone; the lower ends account for overlaps with the other gases.[17][18] In addition, some gases such as methane are known to have large indirect effects that are still being quantified.[25]

Proportion of direct effects at a given moment

In addition to the main greenhouse gases listed above, other greenhouse gases include sulfur hexafluoride, hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons (see IPCC list of greenhouse gases). Some greenhouse gases are not often listed. For example, nitrogen trifluoride has a high global warming potential (GWP) but is only present in very small quantities.[24]

Water vapor and clouds H
36 – 72%  
Carbon dioxide CO
9 – 26%
Methane CH
Ozone O

When ranked by their direct contribution to the greenhouse effect, the most important are:[17]

The contribution of each gas to the greenhouse effect is affected by the characteristics of that gas, its abundance, and any indirect effects it may cause. For example, the direct radiative effect of a mass of methane is about 72 times stronger than the same mass of carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame[21] but it is present in much smaller concentrations so that its total direct radiative effect is smaller, in part due to its shorter atmospheric lifetime. On the other hand, in addition to its direct radiative impact, methane has a large, indirect radiative effect because it contributes to ozone formation. Shindell et al. (2005)[22] argue that the contribution to climate change from methane is at least double previous estimates as a result of this effect.[23]

refer to caption and adjacent text
Schmidt et al. (2010)[19] analysed how individual components of the atmosphere contribute to the total greenhouse effect. They estimated that water vapor accounts for about 50% of the Earth's greenhouse effect, with clouds contributing 25%, carbon dioxide 20%, and the minor greenhouse gases and aerosols accounting for the remaining 5%. In the study, the reference model atmosphere is for 1980 conditions. Image credit: NASA.[20]

Impacts on the overall greenhouse effect

The major non-gas contributor to the Earth's greenhouse effect, [18]

Contribution of clouds to Earth's greenhouse effect

Methane has a number of indirect effects in addition to forming CO
. Firstly, the main chemical which destroys methane in the atmosphere is the hydroxyl radical (OH). Methane reacts with OH and so more methane means that the concentration of OH goes down. Effectively, methane increases its own atmospheric lifetime and therefore its overall radiative effect. The second effect is that the oxidation of methane can produce ozone. Thirdly, as well as making CO
the oxidation of methane produces water; this is a major source of water vapor in the stratosphere which is otherwise very dry. CO and NMVOC also produce CO
when they are oxidized. They remove OH from the atmosphere and this leads to higher concentrations of methane. The surprising effect of this is that the global warming potential of CO is three times that of CO
.[16] The same process that converts NMVOC to carbon dioxide can also lead to the formation of tropospheric ozone. Halocarbons have an indirect effect because they destroy stratospheric ozone. Finally hydrogen can lead to ozone production and CH
increases as well as producing water vapor in the stratosphere.[15]


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