Once, all climate changes occurred naturally. However, during the Industrial Revolution, we began altering our climate and environment through changing agricultural and industrial practices. Before the Industrial Revolution, human activity released very few gases into the atmosphere, but now through population growth, fossil fuel burning, and deforestation, we are affecting the mixture of gases in the atmosphere.
What Are Greenhouse Gases?
Some greenhouse gases occur naturally in the atmosphere, while others result from human activities. Naturally occuring greenhouse gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Certain human activities, however, add to the levels of most of these naturally occurring gases:
- Carbon dioxide is released to the atmosphere when solid waste, fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal), and wood and wood products are burned.
- Methane is emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil. Methane emissions also result from the decomposition of organic wastes in municipal solid waste landfills, and the raising of livestock.
- Nitrous oxide is emitted during agricultural and industrial activities, as well as during combustion of solid waste and fossil fuels.
Very powerful greenhouse gases that are not naturally occurring include hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), which are generated in a variety of industrial processes.
Each greenhouse gas differs in its ability to absorb heat in the atmosphere. HFCs and PFCs are the most heat-absorbent. Methane traps over 21 times more heat per molecule than carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide absorbs 270 times more heat per molecule than carbon dioxide. Often, estimates of greenhouse gas emissions are presented in units of millions of metric tons of carbon equivalents (MMTCE), which weights each gas by its GWP value, or Global Warming Potential.
What Are Emissions Inventories?
An emission inventory is an accounting of the amount of air pollutants discharged into the atmosphere. It is generally characterized by the following factors:
- the chemical or physical identity of the pollutants included,
- the geographic area covered,
- the institutional entities covered,
- the time period over which emissions are estimated, and
- the types of activities that cause emissions.
Emission inventories are developed for a variety of purposes. Inventories of natural and anthropogenic emissions are used by scientists as inputs to air quality models, by policy makers to develop strategies and policies or track progress of standards, and by facilities and regulatory agencies to establish compliance records with allowable emission rates. A well-constructed inventory should include enough documentation and other data to allow readers to understand the underlying assumptions and to reconstruct the calculations for each of the estimates included.
What Are Sinks?
A sink is a reservoir that uptakes a chemical element or compound from another part of its cycle. For example, soil and trees tend to act as natural sinks for carbon - each year hundreds of billions of tons of carbon in the form of CO2 are absorbed by oceans, soils, and trees.
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