Greenhouse Gases Essay

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The e arth surface absorbs energy from the sun and radiates it back into the atmosphere. Socalled greenhouse gases are gases that, when present in the atmosphere, form a layer of insulation that traps the earth’s outgoing heat. This causes the earth’s overall temperature to become warm, a phenomenon originally known as the greenhouse effect, now more frequently called global warming or global climate change. The latter is a broader term that includes other atmospheric changes besides the greenhouse effect. Principal greenhouse gases include carbondioxide (CO2), methan (CH4), ozone (O3), chlorofluorocardons (CFCs), Nitrous oxides (N2O) and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). While greenhouse gases are entering the atmosphere from both natural and human origins (the latter known as anthropogenic), the increase in human origins of such gases is most significant, and is thus driving the overall change in climate.

Atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases has increased over the last century due to industrial and agricultural activity. The most significant greenhouse gas by volume is carbon dioxide. This is released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal) in vehicle exhaust, coal fired power plants, and industry. Similarly, methane concentrations have increased as a result of the production and transportation of fossil fuels, rice paddy farming, livestock production, and emissions from municipal solid waste landfills. Nitrous oxide is released from agricultural and industrial activities, and the combustion of both fossil fuels and solid waste.

Each greenhouse gas has a different per-molecule capacity for heat absorption. 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. CFCs are also more powerful than carbon dioxide, however, emissions of CFCs have decreased significantly since the Montreal Protocol. There is significant public confusion between greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change and gases that contribute to ozone depletion. This confusion is magnified by the fact that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) contribute to both ozone depletion and climate change.

Regulation of Greenhouse Gases

International coordination to reduce global climate change has been highly politically charged. This is in part because nations from around the world have very different levels of carbon dioxide emissions and will face different degrees of impact from the changing climate. In addition to national governments, oil companies and environmental organizations are involved in negotiations. Issues of contention have included extent of overall emissions by each nation, process for emissions reduction and the degree to which nations meet targets by using “carbon-removal” methods such as planting forests versus reducing actual emissions. International collaborative efforts on climate change began as far back as 1979 with the the first World Climate Conference in Geneva.

In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted at the World Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. Signatory nations agreed to reduce and inventory emissions and to mitigate for climate change. Developed countries and countries with economies in transition were required to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their 1990 levels by the end of 2000. This commitment was voluntary, however, rather than binding. The convention was ratified by the United States and went into effect in 1994.

Voluntary commitments were not leading to emissions reductions, thus after years of highly charged international negotiations, the Kyoto Protocol went into effect in 2005. Under the Kyoto Protocol, industrialized nations are committed to legally binding reductions in greenhouse emissions between 2008-12. Included are provisions for emissions trading among nations and so called “clean development mechanisms,” which encourage industrialized nations to transfer technology that would reduce emissions to developing countries. Conflict over many issues, especially the responsibility of China and India for greenhouse emission reduction, was significant. Furthermore, the Kyoto Protocol went into effect without the ratification of the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States. In 2001 George W. Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol on the basis that it was too costly for the U.S. economy, proposing instead a highly criticized plan that focuses on voluntary reductions in emissions, tax credits for emissions reductions, and increased research and development for new energy technologies. In contrast to the 7 percent reduction that would have been required under the Kyoto Protocol, this plan allows for a 12 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 and has provided no mechanism for ensuring that this target will be met.


  1. Agarwal, S. Narain, et al., The Global Commons and Environmental Justice-Climate Environmental Justice (Transaction Publishers, 2002);
  2. Bruce Johansen, The Global Warming Desk Reference (Greenwood Press, 2002);
  3. Pinguelli-Rosa and M. Munashinghe, eds., Ethics, Equity and International Negotiations on Climate Change (Edward Elgar, 2002);
  4. Raynor, E. L. Malone, et al., Equity Issues and Integrated Assessment. Fair Weather? Equity Concerns in Climate Change (Earthscan Publications, 1999);
  5. D. Victor, The Regulation of Greenhouse Gases: Does Fairness Matter? Fair Weather? Equity Concerns in Climate Change (Earthscan Publications, 1999).

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