Greenhouse gas, any gas that has the property of absorbing infrared radiation (net heat energy) emitted from Earth’s surface and reradiating it back to Earth’s surface, thus contributing to the greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapour are the most important greenhouse gases. (To a lesser extent, surface-level ozone, nitrous oxides, and fluorinated gases also trap infrared radiation.) Greenhouse gases have a profound effect on the energy budget of the Earth system despite making up only a fraction of all atmospheric gases. Concentrations of greenhouse gases have varied substantially during Earth’s history, and these variations have driven substantial climate changes at a wide range of timescales. In general, greenhouse gas concentrations have been particularly high during warm periods and low during cold periods.
A number of processes influence greenhouse gas concentrations. Some, such as tectonic activities, operate at timescales of millions of years, whereas others, such as vegetation, soil, wetland, and ocean sources and sinks, operate at timescales of hundreds to thousands of years. Human activities—especially fossil-fuel combustion since the Industrial Revolution—are responsible for steady increases in atmospheric concentrations of various greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
The effect of each greenhouse gas on Earth’s climate depends on its chemical nature and its relative concentration in the atmosphere. Some gases have a high capacity for absorbing infrared radiation or occur in significant quantities, whereas others have considerably lower capacities for absorption or occur only in trace amounts. Radiative forcing, as defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is a measure of the influence a given greenhouse gas or other climatic factor (such as solar irradiance or albedo) has on the amount of radiant energy impinging upon Earth’s surface. To understand the relative influence of each greenhouse gas, so-called forcing values (given in watts per square metre) calculated for the time period between 1750 and the present day are given below.
Major greenhouse gases
Water vapour is the most potent greenhouse gas in Earth’s atmosphere, but its behaviour is fundamentally different from that of the other greenhouse gases. The primary role of water vapour is not as a direct agent of radiative forcing but rather as a climate feedback—that is, as a response within the climate system that influences the system’s continued activity. This distinction arises because the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere cannot, in general, be directly modified by human behaviour but is instead set by air temperatures. The warmer the surface, the greater the evaporation rate of water from the surface. As a result, increased evaporation leads to a greater concentration of water vapour in the lower atmosphere capable of absorbing infrared radiation and emitting it back to the surface.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most significant greenhouse gas. Natural sources of atmospheric CO2 include outgassing from volcanoes, the combustion and natural decay of organic matter, and respiration by aerobic (oxygen-using) organisms. These sources are balanced, on average, by a set of physical, chemical, or biological processes, called “sinks,” that tend to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Significant natural sinks include terrestrial vegetation, which takes up CO2 during photosynthesis.
A number of oceanic processes also act as carbon sinks. One such process, the “solubility pump,” involves the descent of surface seawater containing dissolved CO2. Another process, the “biological pump,” involves the uptake of dissolved CO2 by marine vegetation and phytoplankton (small, free-floating, photosynthetic organisms) living in the upper ocean or by other marine organisms that use CO2 to build skeletons and other structures made of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). As these organisms expire and fall to the ocean floor, their carbon is transported downward and eventually buried at depth. A long-term balance between these natural sources and sinks leads to the background, or natural, level of CO2 in the atmosphere.
In contrast, human activities increase atmospheric CO2 levels primarily through the burning of fossil fuels (principally oil and coal, and secondarily natural gas, for use in transportation, heating, and electricity production) and through the production of cement. Other anthropogenic sources include the burning of forests and the clearing of land. Anthropogenic emissions currently account for the annual release of about 7 gigatons (7 billion tons) of carbon into the atmosphere. Anthropogenic emissions are equal to approximately 3 percent of the total emissions of CO2 by natural sources, and this amplified carbon load from human activities far exceeds the offsetting capacity of natural sinks (by perhaps as much as 2–3 gigatons per year).
CO2 has consequently accumulated in the atmosphere at an average rate of 1.4 parts per million (ppm) by volume per year between 1959 and 2006 and roughly 2.0 ppm per year between 2006 and 2018. Overall, this rate of accumulation has been linear (that is, uniform over time). However, certain current sinks, such as the oceans, could become sources in the future. This may lead to a situation in which the concentration of atmospheric CO2 builds at an exponential rate (that is, at a rate of increase that is also increasing over time).
The natural background level of carbon dioxide varies on timescales of millions of years due to slow changes in outgassing through volcanic activity. For example, roughly 100 million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period, CO2 concentrations appear to have been several times higher than today (perhaps close to 2,000 ppm). Over the past 700,000 years, CO2 concentrations have varied over a far smaller range (between roughly 180 and 300 ppm) in association with the same Earth orbital effects linked to the coming and going of the ice ages of the Pleistocene epoch. By the early 21st century, CO2 levels reached 384 ppm, which is approximately 37 percent above the natural background level of roughly 280 ppm that existed at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Atmospheric CO2 levels continued to increase, and by 2018 they had reached 410 ppm. According to ice core measurements, such levels are believed to be the highest in at least 800,000 years and, according to other lines of evidence, may be the highest in at least 5,000,000 years.
Radiative forcing caused by carbon dioxide varies in an approximately logarithmic fashion with the concentration of that gas in the atmosphere. The logarithmic relationship occurs as the result of a saturation effect wherein it becomes increasingly difficult, as CO2 concentrations increase, for additional CO2 molecules to further influence the “infrared window” (a certain narrow band of wavelengths in the infrared region that is not absorbed by atmospheric gases). The logarithmic relationship predicts that the surface warming potential will rise by roughly the same amount for each doubling of CO2 concentration. At current rates of fossil-fuel use, a doubling of CO2 concentrations over preindustrial levels is expected to take place by the middle of the 21st century (when CO2 concentrations are projected to reach 560 ppm). A doubling of CO2 concentrations would represent an increase of roughly 4 watts per square metre of radiative forcing. Given typical estimates of “climate sensitivity” in the absence of any offsetting factors, this energy increase would lead to a warming of 2 to 5 °C (3.6 to 9 °F) over preindustrial times. The total radiative forcing by anthropogenic CO2 emissions since the beginning of the industrial age is approximately 1.66 watts per square metre.