Greenhouse Gases | Effects and Types

Greenhouse gases

Greenhouse Gases

Greenhouse gases play a crucial role in shaping the Earth’s climate, but their excessive presence is causing significant environmental challenges. In this article, we will explore what greenhouse gases are, their effects on the planet, and the different types responsible for the ongoing climate crisis.

Understanding Greenhouse Gases

Greenhouse gases are naturally occurring and human-made compounds that trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, creating a natural greenhouse effect. This phenomenon is essential as it helps maintain a habitable temperature on our planet. However, human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and industrial processes, have increased the concentration of these gases, leading to an enhanced greenhouse effect and global warming.

(GHGs) gases play an essential role in regulating the climate. Without them, the average temperature on Earth would be -18°C (-0.4°F) instead of +14°C (57.2°F) and life might not exist. However, since the 19th century, man has considerably increased the quantity of greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere. As a result, the natural climatic balance is modified and the climate is readjusted by a warming of the earth’s surface. We can already see the effects of climate change. This is why we must mobilize and act. Everyone is concerned: elected officials, economic players, citizens, to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, but also to adapt to the changes already underway.

Read also: Climate Change Trends | The climate is changing and it’s a reality

Greenhouse gases allow sunlight to pass through the atmosphere, but then absorb and reflect the infrared radiation (heat) the planet emits. Efbrazil, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Types of Greenhouse Gases

Some greenhouse gases are naturally present in the air (water vapour, carbon dioxide). If water (steam and clouds) is the element that contributes the most to the “natural” greenhouse effect, the increase in the greenhouse effect since the industrial revolution of the 19th century is induced by emissions of other greenhouse gases caused by our activities. Several gases contribute to the greenhouse effect, but the primary ones include:

  • The accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere contributes to 2/3 of the increase in the greenhouse effect induced by human activities (combustion of gas, oil, deforestation, cement factories, etc.). This is why the effect of other greenhouse gases is usually measured in CO2 equivalent (eq. CO2). Current CO2 emissions will impact atmospheric concentrations and global temperature for decades, as its lifetime in the atmosphere is over 100 years.
  • Methane (CH4): Ruminant farms, flooded rice paddies, garbage dumps and oil and gas operations are the main sources of human-induced methane. The lifetime of methane in the atmosphere is about 12 years.
  • Nitrous oxide (N2O) comes from nitrogen fertilizers and certain chemical processes. Its lifespan is about 120 years.
  • Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) has a lifetime of 50,000 years in the atmosphere.
  • The ozone (O3) found at high altitudes in the atmosphere forms the ozone layer that protects the Earth from solar ultraviolet radiation. Instead, surface ozone is a highly polluting element that appears when sunlight reacts with pollution from industries and vehicles. It contributes to the formation of photochemical fog and enhances the greenhouse effect. In addition, surface ozone does not rise to the upper parts of the atmosphere to strengthen the ozone layer.

Greenhouse effects

The greenhouse effect is a naturally occurring phenomenon that traps some of the heat emitted by the Sun in the planet’s atmosphere. It is also enhanced by various man-made processes. The rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have contributed to various adverse effects on the Earth’s climate and ecosystems. Some of the significant impacts include:

The greenhouse effect, the cause of global warming

Increased greenhouse gas emissions have led to a rise in the Earth’s average temperature, causing global warming. This, in turn, triggers extreme weather events, melting glaciers, and rising sea levels.

Global warming refers to the long-term increase in Earth’s average surface temperature due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases, trap heat from the sun that would otherwise escape back into space, creating a natural greenhouse effect. Human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels for energy, deforestation, and industrial processes, have significantly increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, leading to an enhanced greenhouse effect.

The consequences of global warming are far-reaching and impactful. As the Earth’s temperature rises, it disrupts weather patterns, causing more frequent and severe heatwaves, droughts, storms, and heavy rainfall events. Melting glaciers and ice caps contribute to rising sea levels, which pose a threat to coastal communities and low-lying regions. The warming of oceans also leads to coral bleaching, endangering marine ecosystems and the livelihoods of millions of people who rely on the ocean for food and income.

The operation of the greenhouse effect is unbalanced by human activities. The use of fossil fuels such as oil, coal or gas causes an increase in the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This is why energy transition is a major challenge in the fight against global warming. This imbalance in the atmosphere causes global warming. The long lifetime of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere leads to long-term impacts.

Climate Change

Greenhouse gases are altering weather patterns worldwide, leading to more frequent and intense heatwaves, droughts, hurricanes, and flooding.

Climate change encompasses a broader range of changes in the Earth’s climate, including both natural variations and human-induced alterations. While global warming is a specific aspect of climate change, the latter involves alterations in temperature, precipitation patterns, and weather phenomena over long periods. Climate change is influenced by various factors, such as solar radiation, volcanic activity, ocean currents, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and industrialization, have accelerated the pace of climate change. The increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has amplified the natural greenhouse effect, leading to rapid global warming and the altering of weather patterns worldwide. Climate change results in more frequent and intense extreme weather events, disruptions in ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, and threats to human health and food security.

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Ocean Acidification

Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans, leading to ocean acidification. This negatively affects marine life, particularly organisms with calcium carbonate shells.

Ocean Acidification: Ocean acidification is a consequence of the excess carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. As CO2 is absorbed by the world’s oceans, it reacts with seawater to form carbonic acid. This process reduces the ocean’s pH level, making it more acidic. Ocean acidification poses a significant threat to marine life, especially organisms with calcium carbonate shells, such as corals, mollusks, and some plankton species.

The increased acidity hampers the ability of these organisms to build and maintain their protective shells and skeletons. Coral reefs, which are vital ecosystems that support a vast array of marine species, become vulnerable to degradation and bleaching due to ocean acidification and warming. This disruption in marine ecosystems can have cascading effects on other marine life, leading to reduced biodiversity, affecting fish populations, and disrupting the entire marine food chain.

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Loss of Biodiversity

Climate change and warming temperatures disrupt ecosystems and threaten the survival of various plant and animal species.

Loss of biodiversity refers to the ongoing decline in the variety and number of plant and animal species on Earth. Human activities, such as habitat destruction, deforestation, overexploitation of resources, pollution, and climate change, are major contributors to the loss of biodiversity. As natural habitats are destroyed or altered, many species struggle to survive or face extinction.

Biodiversity is essential for maintaining healthy ecosystems and providing various ecosystem services that humans rely on, such as clean air and water, pollination of crops, and nutrient cycling. The loss of biodiversity can disrupt ecosystem stability, reduce the resilience of ecosystems to environmental changes, and result in the decline or extinction of species.

Conserving biodiversity is critical for preserving the natural balance of ecosystems and ensuring the sustainability of resources for future generations. Efforts to protect and restore habitats, enact wildlife conservation measures, and reduce human impact on ecosystems are vital to addressing the loss of biodiversity and safeguarding the rich variety of life on Earth

1 greenhouse effect rev 5-22-19
Greenhouse effects. NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What is the influence of human activities on the greenhouse effect?

The greenhouse effect is unbalanced by our massive need for energy. The human population and industrial activities are constantly increasing, resulting in an increased use of fossil fuels such as oil, gas or coal.

The atmosphere is therefore increasingly concentrated in greenhouse gases. Human activities such as the breeding of cattle which release methane or the carbon footprint of the car that drives thanks to the combustion of fossil fuels emit large quantities of greenhouse gases and affect the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

What are the consequences of the greenhouse effect on the planet?

The greenhouse effect, linked to human activities, has already caused a temperature increase of around 1°C compared to the industrial era. Some climate changes are already visible but their impacts are still weak. This is why it is imperative to act quickly and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The greater the climate change, the more the balance of our ecosystems will be threatened. Thus, an increase in the average temperature of more than 1.5°C would lead to extreme climatic phenomena which will have a direct impact on phenomena such as the rise in sea level, the melting of the ice, the forced migration of some populations…

In 2022, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) produced a special report describing in detail the consequences of global warming of 1.5°C:
  • Increase in average temperature;
  • Intense droughts;
  • Heavy rain…

How to limit the greenhouse effect?

How to reduce the greenhouse effect through 5 individual actions?

  1. Reduce meat consumption: livestock farming is one of the main greenhouse gas emitting sectors (UN estimates it makes up more than 14% of all man-made greenhouse gases, including methane);
  2. Eat seasonal fruits and vegetables: out-of-season fruits and vegetables are often grown in heated greenhouses;
  3. Recycle your waste: plastic, glass, cardboard, recycling allows you to recover your waste;
  4. Opt for the circular economy: adopt a responsible mode of consumption to limit negative externalities on the environment;
  5. Switch to green energy and favor renewable energies while keeping in mind that the least emitting energy is the one that we do not consume!

The only solution to reduce the greenhouse effect caused by human activities is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, in December 2015, 192 countries mobilized by signing the Paris Agreement and setting objectives to limit global warming.


Greenhouse gases have a profound impact on the Earth’s climate and are the driving force behind global warming and climate change. To mitigate their effects, urgent and collective efforts are required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, transition to renewable energy sources, and implement sustainable practices. Only through a global commitment to combatting climate change can we safeguard the future of our planet and its diverse ecosystems.

Sources: PinterPandai, Britannica, Natural Resources Defense Council, British Geological Survey, BBC

Photo credit: A loose necktie (CC BY-SA 4.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Photo description: the greenhouse effect of solar radiation on the Earth’s surface caused by greenhouse gases.

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