Understanding Greenhouse Gases, and How They Affect Global Warming

Last weekend, US and Chinese leaders agreed to reduce consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a greenhouse gas. We know global warming is caused by greenhouse gases that trap heat on the surface of the planet, leading to extreme weather, species extinction, and ocean acidification. Other greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. But where exactly do those gases come from, and why should we care? Let’s take a look at their major sources, how they impact our environment, and potential solutions. [Image: Getty Images]

Carbon Dioxide

Sources : Produced when carbon-containing fuels like gasoline, oil, natural gas or wood are burned. Impacts : Carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 40% since the Industrial Revolution, making it the principal greenhouse gas overheating the planet. Additionally, when carbon dioxide dissolves in the ocean it forms carbonic acid, causing ocean acidification that has negative effects for sea dwelling creatures. Solutions : Reduce your carbon footprint by using public transportation, carpools, biking. And while you’re at it, plant a tree—deforestation contributes to global warming because trees absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. [Image: Getty Images]

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Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)

Sources: Used as refrigerants and propellants in aerosols. Impacts: Not only do these gases contribute to the greenhouse effect, they also deplete the ozone layer which protects us from harmful UVB light. Once they reach the upper atmosphere, sunlight breaks the molecules apart to produce free radicals that go on to destroy ozone molecules. Solutions :While CFCs have been mostly phased out, world leaders should follow Obama’s lead and restrict the use of HFCs as well. You can help by reducing your use of aerosol products. [Image: Getty Images]

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Sources: Produced in landfills and marshes when certain microorganisms exhale. Cow belches release up to 16% of methane emissions. Impacts: Methane is more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, though it’s less abundant. Solutions: Natural gas producers should take every precaution to prevent natural gas leaks in the pipelines. Livestock farmers can reduce emissions by breeding cows with better digestive systems and diversifying their grazing lands. You could also be a vegetarian, to reduce the amount of cows being farmed. [Image: Getty Images]

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Nitrous Oxide

Sources: Nitrous Oxide is mostly released from the soil during nitration processes, which occurs naturally, but is also stimulated through the use of fertilizers. It is also released in the combustion of fossil fuels. Impacts: Nitrous oxide It is the most potent greenhouse gas, 310 times stronger than carbon dioxide. Similar to HFCs, this greenhouse gas destroys the ozone by turning into free radicals in the atmosphere. While nitrous oxide may the most harmful to the environment, it only makes up 5% of all US greenhouse gas emissions. Solutions: Help by applying fertilizers more efficiently and cutting back on amount you drive. [Image: Getty Images]

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