Scientists know with virtual certainty that:
Human activities are changing the composition of Earth’s atmosphere. Increasing levels of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere since pre-industrial times are well-documented and understood.
he atmospheric build up of CO2 and other greenhouse gases is largely the result of human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels.
A warming trend of about 0.7 to 1.5°F occurred during the 20th century. Warming occurred in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and over the oceans.
The major greenhouse gases emitted by human activities remain in the atmosphere for periods ranging from decades to centuries. It is therefore virtually certain that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will continue to rise over the next few decades
ncreasing greenhouse gas concentrations tend to warm the planet.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated ‘There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities’ (IPCC, 2001). In short, a number of scientific analyses indicate, but cannot prove, that rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are contributing to climate change (as theory predicts). In the coming decades, scientists anticipate that as atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to rise, average global temperatures and sea levels will continue to rise as a result and precipitation patterns will change.
What’s Not Certain?
Important scientific questions remain about how much warming will occur, how fast it will occur, and how the warming will affect the rest of the climate system including precipitation patterns and storms. Answering these questions will require advances in scientific knowledge in a number of areas:
Improving understanding of natural climatic variations, changes in the sun’s energy, land-use changes, the warming or cooling effects of pollutant aerosols, and the impacts of changing humidity and cloud cover.
Determining the relative contribution to climate change of human activities and natural causes.
Projecting future greenhouse emissions and how the climate system will respond within a narrow range.
Improving understanding of the potential for rapid or abrupt climate change.
Greenhouse Gas Overview
Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere are often called greenhouse gases.
Some greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide occur naturally and are emitted to the atmosphere through natural processes and human activities. Other greenhouse gases (e.g., fluorinated gases) are created and emitted solely through human activities. The principal greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere because of human activities are:
Carbon Dioxide (CO2): Carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal), solid waste, trees and wood products, and also as a result of other chemical reactions (e.g., manufacture of cement). Carbon dioxide is also removed from the atmosphere (or “sequestered”) when it is absorbed by plants as part of the biological carbon cycle.
Methane (CH4): Methane is emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil. Methane emissions also result from livestock and other agricultural practices and by the decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills.
Nitrous Oxide (N2O): Nitrous oxide is emitted during agricultural and industrial activities, as well as during combustion of fossil fuels and solid waste.
Fluorinated Gases: Hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride are synthetic, powerful greenhouse gases that are emitted from a variety of industrial processes. Fluorinated gases are sometimes used as substitutes for ozone-depleting substances (i.e., CFCs, HCFCs, and halons). These gases are typically emitted in smaller quantities, but because they are potent greenhouse gases, they are sometimes referred to as High Global Warming Potential gases (“High GWP gases”).
Greenhouse Gas Inventories
A greenhouse gas inventory is an accounting of the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to or removed from the atmosphere over a specific period of time (e.g., one year). A greenhouse gas inventory also provides information on the activities that cause emissions and removals, as well as background on the methods used to make the calculations. Policy makers use greenhouse gas inventories to track emission trends, develop strategies and policies and assess progress. Scientists use greenhouse gas inventories as inputs to atmospheric and economic models.
To track the national trend in emissions and removals since 1990, EPA develops the official U.S. greenhouse gas inventory each year. The national greenhouse gas inventory is submitted to the United Nations in accordance with the Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Emission Trends & Projections
Estimates of future emissions and removals depend in part on assumptions about changes in underlying human activities. For example, the demand for fossil fuels such as gasoline and coal is expected to increase greatly with the predicted growth of the U.S. and global economies.
The National Research Council concluded, in assessing current trends, that ’emissions of some greenhouse gases are increasing, but others are decreasing. In some cases the decreases are a result of policy decisions, while in other cases the reasons for the decrease are not well understood’ (NRC, 2001).
Many, but not all, human sources of greenhouse gas emissions are expected to rise in the future. This growth may be reduced by ongoing efforts to increase the use of newer, cleaner technologies and other measures. Additionally, our everyday choices about such things as commuting, housing, electricity use and recycling can influence the amount of greenhouse gases being emitted.