Global atmospheric carbon dioxide passed 409 parts per million (ppm) in 2019. Almost double the concentration levels at the dawn of the industrial revolution (280 ppm). As the most famous of the Greenhouse Gases (GHGs), carbon dioxide is linked to rising temperatures due to its contribution to trapping heat in our atmosphere. But what can we do to help? In this post, we will give you the low down on GHGs and how you can use energy more efficiently.
What are Greenhouse Gases?
A greenhouse gas is any gas that absorbs infrared radiation, which contributes to trapping heat within our atmosphere. Hence, the name greenhouse gases! The main driver of global warming has been carbon dioxide. Its release is driven by fossil fuels burned for energy. When burned, they release carbon that plants had pulled out of the atmosphere and stored for millions of years.
GHGs are not a pollutant in and of themselves. Indeed they occur naturally from individual cells in the human body through to flatulent cows! However, higher GHG emissions are linked with air pollution that can be damaging to health. Coal, oil, and gas account for well over 90% of CO2 emissions annually. Other common culprits include:
- Nitrous Oxide
- Fluorinated gases
- Water vapour (in clouds)
But it doesn’t need to be this way. Recent advances in solar, wind, and hydropower mean the path to decarbonisation doesn’t have to be centred on energy reduction.
Why do Greenhouse Gases cause heating?
Whether they are naturally occurring or the result of human activity, GHGs contribute to climate change and global warming. Whilst they do naturally breakdown and get absorbed in the environment, this takes between 50-200 years. As it is, this means they accumulate in the atmosphere much faster than they can be absorbed or broken down.
The accumulated GHGs then absorb heat that would otherwise be transmitted out of our atmosphere via radiation. This heat then builds up in the atmosphere and is projected to cause rises in global temperature of more than 3.6° F (2° C). This will see rises in the sea level of over 20 meters, increasing natural disasters, and increased risks of pandemics, such as that we are currently facing.
How can we reduce our reliance on Greenhouse Gases?
As already alluded to, how things are doesn’t have to be how things will be. Indeed, with solar and wind energy prices dropping by half year on year, clean green energy has already become the cheapest source of energy on Earth! This means we already have the tools at our fingertips to implement a cleaner and more equitable energy system than ever before.
It also means that decarbonizing the economy doesn’t have to come at the expense of energy consumption. However, if we are to meet global targets to keep global temperature rises to less than 3.6° F (2° C), we need to massively reduce the carbon we use. Indeed, we need to reduce 470 gigatons of emissions by 2050. This means ramping up renewable energy production far more than the 1 per cent projected by the U.S. Energy Information Administration for 2021. Thanks to solar – this is completely within our grasp.
What’s so good about solar energy?
Between 2004 and 2014 solar energy production increased by an astonishing factor of 100! And, unlike finite fossil fuels that contribute to climate change, solar energy is abundant beyond belief. In fact, 430 quintillion joules of solar energy hit the surface of the Earth every hour. If you’ve never heard of a quintillion, that’s 18 zeros following 430!
To put that into perspective, that’s enough solar energy to cover all the energy humans consume annually. Every. Single. Hour! Moreover, the exponentially decreasing costs of solar-powered energy, means individuals, communities, and society at large can choose to turn their back on fossil fuels without reducing their energy consumption.
There are no easy fixes that mean we can instantly reduce the pollution caused by GHGs. However, green energy offers us the possibility of having your cake and eating it. With the sun providing us with more energy every hour than we consume in a year, renewable energy offers us a route to freedom from our fossil fuel addiction. All we need to do is to act now!