You have probably heard the term Greenhouse Gas emissions before, or have seen or read greenhouse gases abbreviation, GHGs. GHGs are widely spoken about, oftentimes in relation to climate change or ozone layer depletion. It is a very popular term in the sustainability or environmental world, as GHGs are the direct cause of climate change. For a term so widely used, there is limited general knowledge on the topic. Given this, I hope to explain with a bit more detail about what GHGs are, why they are so bad for the environment and what we can do to help curb our impact.
What are Greenhouse Gases?
GHGs are gases that are naturally created and emitted. These gases trap heat in the atmosphere, creating a ‘greenhouse effect’ – hence its namesake. These gases allow the sun’s rays to pass through the atmosphere and warm the earth, but prevent them from escaping. Surprisingly enough, GHGs are naturally emitted through the earth’s own biological processes and in their natural occurrence is considered a good thing for all life on earth. Without GHGs, earth would be uninhabitable (much like Mars) because it would constantly be in a frozen state. So in a controlled way, GHGs are necessary to maintain life on earth, and are actually a part of a self-sustaining system.
A misconception about GHGs is that they are not just one gas, but multiple gases, differing in environmental impact and necessity. There are actually 7 different types of GHGs.
Common gases are the GHGs that you have probably heard of by name, and are those that are naturally occurring in the environment through the earth’s regular biological processes. There are three common GHGs:
- Carbon Dioxide
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is the most common and predominant GHG that is emitted through human activity and naturally. CO2 is naturally emitted and created through the Earth’s natural carbon cycle, but in relation to human activity, this gas is mostly released through the burning of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and oil).
Methane (CH4) is considered more environmentally detrimental than CO2, even though it is emitted in smaller quantities. Methane is naturally occurring in wetland environments, however it is heavily emitted through factory farming, landfills and even natural gas leaks.
- Nitrous Oxide
Another common GHG is Nitrous Oxide (N2O. N2O accounts for 7% of all emitted GHGs. Naturally, N2O occurs during the earth’s nitrogen cycle and within a variety of natural resources. Through human patterns of consumption, N2O is now known to be created and emitted through agricultural practices, fossil fuel consumption and industrial processes.
Fluorinated gases are the GHGs you’ve probably never heard of but are some of the most environmentally hazardous in relation to their common counterparts. Fluorinated gases are not naturally occurring like other GHGs and are only derived from human related activities. There are 4 different fluorinated gases:
Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are GHGs that are human-made, but much more hazardous to the environment. HFCs global warming potential is thousand times more potent than that of CO2. You’ll often find HFCs used in cooling and refrigeration units.
Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) are another human-made GHG that poses a threat to the environment. Often also used in cooling and refrigeration units, as well as solvents in the electronic industry.
- Sulfur Hexafluoride
Sulfur Hexafluoride (SF6) is a very potent human derived GHG that is often found in electrical equipment, used as an insulator.
- Nitrogen Trifluoride
Nitrogen Trifluoride (NF3) is one of the strongest and most persistent human derived GHGs. NF3 is becoming one of the most popular toxic gases used in the industrial sector, often utilized for LEDs, flat panel display TVs and microelectronics.
Because 3 of these gases are naturally occurring, one may think that they really are not that harmful to the environment and perhaps the human-made ones are the ones to avoid. Unfortunately, all 7 of these GHGs are contributing to climate change. Yes, in most cases the human derived GHGs are much worse for the environment than their naturally occurring counterparts but it is about the volume at which these GHGs are being emitted. The fluorinated gases are predominantly uncommon and released in much smaller quantities in comparison to CO2, CH4 and N2O.
The reason that GHGs are now considered an environmental hazard is the sheer rate that they are being emitted due to human environmental negligence and overconsumption. You’re probably thinking, overconsumption of what? Well, almost everything. Every individual has a role to play in the amount of GHGs emitted each day, through daily choices of how we get around, to what we eat for dinner and even where we go on vacation. This also includes all purchases too, such as where and what we purchase (and what we do with those purchases). You may not think that on an individual basis you impact the environment that much, but when you consider that there are 35 million other people in Canada alone, those numbers start to add up. The UN estimates that 75% of GHGs are emitted from end consumption of fossil fuels (transportation, plastic production, etc).
Given this, GHGs are the driving force behind climate change, as these gases are trapping heat and contributing to increased temperatures worldwide. This does not just refer to global warming anymore, as these gases increase the severity and frequency of storms, heat waves, wildfires and heavy rainfall with little to no predictability. GHGs also contribute to the rise in sea levels due to increased temperatures, as well as ocean acidification and even plant and animal extinction. As GHGs continue to be emitted, and emission levels continue to rise, these conditions will only get worse.
How Do We Reduce GHGs?
As stated above, everyone makes individual choices that affect how much GHGs are emitted on an individual and global scale. There are lots of ways we can individually curb our GHG emissions.
Next time you need to get from A to B, think about taking public transit, carpooling or an alternative method of transportation, such as biking or walking (depending on distance). Cars and gasoline powered vehicles making getting places easier, but they are not necessarily good for the environment. If the opportunity presents itself for you to buy a new vehicle, consider buying something electric or hybrid.
- Upgrade Buildings
Many buildings still run on fossil fuels. Upgrade, where possible, so that everything runs through hydro instead (think converting a gas stove to an electric one).
- Support Local Agriculture
The transportation, packaging and unsustainable farming methods of industrial agriculture make buying local food a much more GHG friendly alternative. Look for local foods at your grocery store or even venture to a farmers market. Another way to curb your GHG emissions is to reduce your meat consumption.
- Shop Second-Hand
For clothes, decor, books, etc – always try to find second hand before purchasing new. This reduces the consumption of goods and gives things new life. This has never been easier with online marketplaces.
GHGs are being emitted at a much larger quantity than the earth is able to absorb, leading to climate change. As stated, if these patterns continue, we will be faced with a much larger climate crisis then we are already in. The Government of Canada has set goals to reduce GHGs in Canada to below 2005 levels by 2030 (the Paris Agreement), but time will tell how Canada will meet that target. Through making your own individual choices to reduce GHGs, and businesses and government agencies alike doing the same, I hope we are able to meet those GHGs targets for everyone’s benefit.