Greenhouse Gas vs. CO2: Breaking Down the Distinctions

Climate change is arguably the most significant challenge facing humanity today, with the potential to wipe out the species if drastic action isn’t taken soon. 

The primary reason for this unprecedented ecological crisis is greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere due to fossil fuel combustion

Not all greenhouse gases cause the earth to warm up. For example, there’s evidence that aerosols have had a slight cooling effect. There are also naturally occurring cyclic variations that cause the temperature to fluctuate. 

However, most of the global warming that has occurred since the advent of industrialization is due to human activity. 

This has led to concentrations of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons, methane, and other greenhouse gases higher than have ever been seen during the last 800,000 years of planetary history.

How greenhouse gases cause ecological harm 

Smoke from industrial operations and exhaust from automobiles act like a blanket over the entire planet, trapping heat. 

This has all kinds of adverse environmental consequences. If all these toxic emissions magically disappeared overnight, average global temperatures would plummet to a chilly 0° Fahrenheit (-18° Celsius). 

Currently, the earth’s surface continues to be around 59 °F (15 °C) on average, which is a much more tolerable temperature than the one in our hypothetical scenario. However, the planetary temperature is gradually rising because of all the greenhouse gases we bombard the atmosphere with. 

Keep in mind that there’s a bit of a delay between atmospheric concentrations and temperatures rising. This means that even if we can halt global warming right this minute, temperatures will continue to climb for decades until the excess greenhouse gases are removed from the air. With that in mind, it’s crucial to act sooner rather than later. 

The carbon cycle

Carbon dioxide is an integral part of the planet’s carbon cycle – the circulation of carbon among the atmosphere, ocean, soil, animals, and plants. 

The carbon cycle tends to remain in perfect balance unless disturbed by human activity. We are seeing the cycle be dramatically affected by human activity introducing way more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the ecosystem can handle. 

Ocean organisms take all the carbon dioxide that somehow ends up in the sea and transform it into calcium carbonate. Ultimately, this CO2 becomes a part of the limestone deep beneath the ocean

CO2 can be sequestered by plants through the process of photosynthesis. However, most carbon dioxide finds its way into the atmosphere during the colder months when plants aren’t flourishing.

Is CO2 “worse” than other greenhouse gases?

Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring gas made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms, and is a byproduct of human and animal respiration. Without the right amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, people wouldn’t be able to breathe. 

In 2019, CO2 accounted for a whopping 80% of all the greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. While other emissions have greater heat-trapping ability than carbon dioxide, this greenhouse gas is the most abundant. 

This is why it’s responsible for more global warming than any other gas. 

It’s also the one that hangs around in the atmosphere the longest. CO2 remains in the air for anywhere from decades to thousands of years. After 100 years, 40% of the CO2 in our atmosphere today will still be there. Even if we stopped all carbon dioxide-emitting processes this minute, we’d still see its warming effects for a very long time. 

What are the other greenhouse gases?

Methane (CH4)

Methane accounts for approximately 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the US. Methane molecules are much more efficient at trapping heat than CO2. 

However, CH4 only remains in the air for about a decade. Once it finds its way into the atmosphere, it reacts with hydroxyl radicals. These are charged ions made from oxygen and hydrogen atoms. 

Natural gas is mainly made up of methane. However, biological processes also release massive amounts of this gas into the air, including cow digestion, rice production, and the breakdown of landfill waste. 

Nitrous oxide (N2O)

Nitrous oxide (N2O) comprised approximately 7% of all the greenhouse emissions released into the air in 2019. While it’s not as common as other greenhouse gases, it more than makes up for its relative rarity because it has vastly superior heat-trapping capabilities when compared to CO2. 

Nitrous oxide lingers in the air for almost a century. Furthermore, only about 1% of all the nitrous oxide molecules floating around in the sky get sequestered by plants. That makes N2O removal a painfully slow process. 

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and their replacements 

CFCs are manufactured by human beings for use as refrigerants, solvents for chemical reactions, and use in aerosol sprays. 

While CFCs only make up about 3% of all greenhouse gas emissions, they only get removed in the upper layers of the stratosphere. 

Here, high-energy light assaults the molecules until they’re eventually annihilated. While CFCs are potent climate-destroying gases, they’re not as common as carbon dioxide. 

How are these gases produced?

Transportation

In 2019, the most significant source of carbon dioxide emissions was the burning of fossil fuels for transportation purposes such as passenger vehicles and air and marine travel. This accounted for 29% of total US greenhouse gas emissions

Electricity

Electricity generation was the second most significant source of CO2 emissions, accounting for 24% of all US greenhouse gases. However, the total amount depends on the fossil fuel used to generate electricity. For example, coal-burning produces far more carbon emissions than oil or natural gas. 

Industry

Industrial processes were responsible for approximately 13% of total US greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. 

There are all kinds of industrial processes that give off carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels. Even procedures that don’t use combustion can produce high amounts of CO2. For example, the production of mineral products such as cement and the manufacture of metals like steel and iron also releases emissions.   

What can we do to reduce our emissions and limit the effect of the enhanced greenhouse effect?

There are two ways to slow down the prodigious rate at which greenhouse gases enter our fragile ecosystem. The first is to stop adding them to the atmosphere. The second is to boost the planet’s ability to remove them from circulation. 

Here are some things you can do: 

Use more environmentally friendly transportation

Many of the transportation methods we use daily rely on fossil fuels such as jet fuel for aircraft and gasoline for cars. Automobiles and SUVs emit about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

We can cut down on pollution by pivoting to alternative technologies that don’t require petroleum, such as bicycles and electric automobiles

Try to limit how much you take your car out and see if you can ride a bicycle for some errands. Using public transportation and carpooling are other ways to cut down on the number of cars on the road. 

Switch to solar power 

The amount of electricity generated using renewable sources grows by leaps and bounds. If Costa Rica and Iceland can meet almost all their energy needs through renewable sources, the US can too.

As electricity bills continue to rise with no end in sight, more homeowners are considering switching over to solar energy. By converting to solar power, you’ll not be more cost-efficient, but you’ll also be cutting down on fossil fuel use. 

Reduce electricity needs 

Everyone making a conscious effort to decrease their electrical needs could go a long way toward reducing carbon emissions. Electricity use is responsible for 25% of all greenhouse gases emitted worldwide.  

One simple way you can use less electricity is by replacing antiquated incandescent lightbulbs with LED ones. Switching off lights and electronics when you’re not using them might be something you heard endlessly from your parents, but it’s also an excellent way to help save the planet.  

Go plant-based 

Meat accounts for almost 60% of all carbon emissions from food production. Cattle emit greenhouse gases such as methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide through their burps and manure. 

Forests are cut down to make room for cows to graze, which means fewer trees are around to remove carbon dioxide from the air. 

The best way to combat this problem is by switching to a plant-based diet. If 50% of the planet did this, 65 gigatons of carbon dioxide could be kept out of the atmosphere within three decades. 

Ensure a sustainable future with Aspiration 

We offer environmentally friendly financial products at Aspiration, including a carbon-neutral credit card, the Aspiration Zero

We’ll never use your money to fund fossil fuel energy projects that cause massive amounts of damage to our fragile ecosystem. That way, you can do your banking without compromising your values. 

These are options that traditional banks don’t offer. In this time of wholesale ecological destruction, don’t you think that’s more than a little shortsighted? 

Get started today! 

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