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Other Greenhouse Gases
Climate change and carbon dioxide have received increasing attention in the past year, but there are also other gases that contribute to global warming – some of which may last longer than CO2. What are these gases, what are their effects and what are their sources?
“Anthropogenic” may be a word you see around a lot now when boffins are talking about global warming and greenhouse gases. Anthropogenic simply means originating from human activities, as opposed to those occurring in the natural world.
(GWP) Global Warming Power
This is another term you may see when greenhouse gases are discussed – GWP.
As carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas, but one of current primary concern, other gases that may contribute to global warming are compared to it. Gases also have different lifetimes, so GWP is the proportion of heat trapped by a unit of a greenhouse gas compared to a unit of CO2 over a specific period of time.
Some of the gases below are not part of the Kyoto Protocol, therefore, their production does not need to be reported. The risk is that any inroads made on reportable gases may lead to a false sense of security while some other compounds are damaged.
Other greenhouse gases
Methane is a naturally occurring gas, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that 60% of global methane emissions come from anthropogenic activities which include:
– Fossil fuel production
– Cultivation of crops like rice
– Clearing of forests
Livestock are notorious for producing methane – especially meat. That’s part of why reducing meat in your diet is beneficial for the environment. Methane from animals is the result of bacteria acting on the food they eat.
Some people also produce limited amounts of methane. I don’t think I need to explain that, but contrary to popular belief, only about a third of us emit methane when, you know – and it’s a very small amount.
All jokes aside, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. While it has a shorter life than carbon dioxide, in the first 20 years it has a GWP (see comment above) of 62 – that is 62 times the heat trapping capacity of CO2. And this is a double whammy – methane breaks down into water and … CO2 (carbon dioxide). It’s the gas that keeps on giving.
Compared to carbon dioxide and methane, anthropogenic nitrous oxide emissions are small, but this greenhouse gas has a GWP of 296 over *100* years
Anthropogenic sources of emissions include:
– Exhaust from cars, trucks etc.
– Coal-fired power generation
– Agricultural fertilizers
– Industrial production of adipic acid and nitric acid
So, to cut nitrous oxide emissions, we need to drive less and use less electricity (and switch to green alternatives). We should also look for fruits and vegetables that have been grown on organic farms – better yet, more of us need to go back to the old fashion of having our own vegetable gardens!
Nitrogen trifluoride (NF3)
Nitrogen trifluoride production until 2008 is around the 4,000 ton mark and is projected to double next year. That may not sound like much, but NF3 has a staggering 17,000 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. To date, no studies have been conducted to determine the level of NF3 in the atmosphere. As it is not covered under the Kyoto Protocol as a reportable greenhouse gas, NF3 is one of the compounds that threatens to undermine any progress in other greenhouse gas reduction efforts.
Nitrogen trifluoride is used in the production of LCD and plasma screens.
CFC-12 is a type of Chlorofluorocarbon, more precisely Dichlorodifluoromethane, which does not occur in nature. It is a synthetic greenhouse gas that is widely used as a coolant in refrigerators and air conditioners and is often sold under the brand name Freon-12. Its production was discontinued in 1995 after it was found to cause severe damage to the ozone layer. While it is discontinued, be careful of old appliances such as refrigerators that may still contain freon gas. Call your local waste authority for advice on how to dispose of it.
Not only is it bad for the ozone layer, but HCFC-22 has a GWP over 100 years of 10600!
HCFC-22 is a hydrochlorofluorocarbon, aka Chlorodifluoromethane or R22. It is also sold under the brand name Freon – Freon-22. It has been used mainly in air conditioning applications, but has also been phased out due to environmental concerns, among them its role as a greenhouse gas. The air conditioner manufacturer will no longer be allowed to carry the R22 machine from 2010. If you are buying an air conditioning system whether new or second hand, check that you will not use this gas.
HCFC-22 has a GWP of over 100 years of 1700.
Tetrafluoromethane is another synthetic compound – no natural sources have been found. The main source is mainly as by-products of aluminum and magnesium, but it is also used as a coolant, in the manufacture of circuit boards and some insulation materials. It is also found in some stain protectors for clothing and carpet. Once released into the atmosphere, the greenhouse effect is basically irreversible – so recycle those aluminum cans and avoid using pollution shields if possible. I’ve also read that Tetrafluoromethane is used in some pizza boxes to stop the pizza from sticking to the cardboard – terrible.
Tetrafluoromethane is a greenhouse gas with an atmospheric lifetime of an incredible 50,000 years and a GWP over 100 years of 5700!
Sulfur hexafluoride is used as an insulator in circuit breakers and other electrical equipment and is also a product by forming magnesium. It is a greenhouse gas with a GWP of 22,200 times that of CO2 over a 100-year period. The demand for magnesium die-cast parts by the automotive industry is responsible for a significant increase in emissions. Ironically, the auto industry wants more magnesium-based components as they are lighter and thus contribute to better fuel economy.
Carbon dioxide gets a pretty bad rap when it comes to greenhouse gases, and rightly so – but it’s not the only culprit causing our climate to change through global warming. It is also important to remember that CO2 plays an important role in the ecosystem. Without it, plants would die and most life on earth would follow suit. Plants need carbon dioxide in combination with light and water to create organic matter. It’s a high level of CO2 being produced and there aren’t enough plants on the planet to deal with it that’s the problem. Other natural “carbon sinks” such as our oceans are becoming increasingly saturated with the substance, to the point where some have become acidic.
But carbon dioxide aside, the knowledge of other greenhouse gases such as the one above can help us in addition to our green lives wherever we can and to invite the companies we buy from to do the same in order to reduce the amount of damage done on. There is a fragile atmosphere. It’s rather scary to think that the products we buy today could still have an impact on the environment thousands of years from now.
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