Reality check on Greenhouse gases
Greenhouse gas is a catch-all term used to describe a class of gases — either naturally-occurring or man-made (anthropogenic) which have a detrimental effect on the Earth’s atmosphere. It is no longer in academic dispute that any upset to the natural atmospheric equilibrium can wreak havoc on the climate of the entire planet.
As more of these gases are added to the planet’s atmosphere, they allow more of the Sun’s rays to penetrate into and stay within the air mass which surrounds our planet, instead of bouncing harmlessly back into space. Scientists refer to this process as ‘solar forcing’ whereby more heat is added to the Earth each year than can be removed by natural systems. When more heat is allowed in, more of the polar ice caps melt each summer. It’s a simple equation.
It is likely that later in this century, the northern ice cap will disappear. The other ice cap covers Antarctica, which is nearly the size of the United States and is permanently covered in ice. The ice cap in Antarctica too, is dissipating at an increasing rate. Both effectively function as the air-conditioning system for our planet and trillions of dollars are at stake for the world farming community.
Heat and drought are the known nemesis of food crops and both excessive heat and drought are on the increase as more solar forcing is added to the Earth’s climate equation. Scientists say that in the best-case scenario — with modern technology and farming practices, up to a 2-degree worldwide average temperature increase can be accommodated with the only disruptions being in the number of food-producer bankruptcies and higher food costs for consumers. According to scientists, it is beyond our present ability to compensate for any worldwide temperature increase of more than 2-degrees.
Here is a staggering number to keep in mind: It costs farmers, ag corporations, consumers and governments one-trillion-dollars per year, for each one-degree of worldwide temperature increase! Costs which are already starting to be passed on to consumers and taxpayers.
Given the scenario and the known contributors to atmospheric degradation, it was always assumed that CO2 caused the maximum damage. But studies show that there are greenhouse gases which cause far worse damage. There is no doubt all greenhouse gases contribute to global warming, but some are worse than others — which is why a significant and growing movement is afoot these days to enhance and enlarge the Montreal Protocol an international agreement which limits ozone-depleting gases — to include selected greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide.
Which makes some amount of sense, as methane causes 72 times more global warming per tonne than CO2 does. Nitrous oxide causes 289 times more global warming per tonne than CO2 ever will. Yet others are exponentially worse, such as sulfur hexafluoride which contributes 16,300 times it’s weight to our atmospheric problems. Get used to hearing the term CO2-equivalent — we will be hearing a lot about that in the coming months.
The worldwide tonnage of these pollutants are much lower than the billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere each year, but at those ratios even a few million tons can do a lot of lasting damage. Also, some emissions can stay in the atmosphere for up to 50,000 years eating ozone the entire time.
Atmospheric lifetime and GWP relative to CO2 at different time horizon for various greenhouse gases.
Global warming potential (GWP) for given time horizon
This chart is courtesy of Wikipedia, to view it full size, click here.
More CO2 is produced by our civilization than any other gas and it is prudent to limit CO2 emissions wherever possible and to use carbon capture and storage to mitigate anthropogenic CO2 production. But it is beginning to look like all of the other greenhouse gases are the real story — and the ones most easily reduced.
At one-trillion-dollars per one-degree-of-global-warming, it is already costing consumers and taxpayers a huge amount of money. If our civilization spent just ten percent of that staggering amount of money towards lowering the output of all of the other greenhouse gases besides CO2, we might be starting to show our planet and each other some respect.
While you are pondering these points, here are two interesting infographics by the world’s most respected graphic designer, Jonathan Barnbrook from his studio, Barnbrook Design. The Little Book of Shocking Global Facts which combines startling graphic imagery with truly shocking facts, gathered from the world’s most authoritative sources.
The below infographic ‘Top 20 carbon emitting countries’ show us that China, U.S., India, Russia and Japan top the list of the carbon-emitting countries, all of which emit billions of metric tons of CO2 gas.
Effects of global warming: Small glaciers in the Andes will disappear, threatening the water supplies of up to 50 million people. Between 40 and 60 million more people will be exposed to malaria in Africa alone.
The Little Book of Shocking Global Facts is available on Amazon and for less than $12 — it’s a steal of a deal!
- Changes in Atmospheric Constituents and in Radiative Forcing (IPCC – downloadable PDF)
- CO2 hit record high in 2011 – UN report (guardian.co.uk)
- Greenhouse Gas Levels Reach New Record High [Greg Laden’s Blog] (scienceblogs.com)
- Greenhouse Gasses Hit Record High in 2011 Says UN (redorbit.com)
- CO2 Hits New High; World Could Warm 7°F by 2060 (climatecentral.org)
- Greenhouse Gas Concentrations Reach New Record (ecowatch.org)