What are Gas Emissions?

Jason C. Chavis

Gas emissions are any gaseous material released, either naturally or artificially, into the atmosphere. These gas emissions exist in a variety of forms: most notably water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone. Each of these substances, while already existing in the atmosphere at certain levels, can be increased through various means, such as the burning of fossil fuels or the eruption of a volcano. The effects of these gas emissions come in the form of the greenhouse effect. Each of these gases absorb radiation in the atmosphere, increasing the temperature of the Earth.

Sometimes volcanic gases cause lingering detrimental side effects, such as acid rain.
Sometimes volcanic gases cause lingering detrimental side effects, such as acid rain.

Different gases have different effects on the atmosphere and exist in different quantities. For example, methane is one of the strongest absorbers of radiation, while carbon dioxide is not. However, the level of carbon dioxide from gas emissions is much more prevalent than methane, so its effect is much stronger overall. This atmospheric warming is needed to maintain present conditions on the planet. Earth's surface temperature would be approximately 59°F (about 33°C) colder if these gases were not present in the atmosphere.

Car exhaust still produces a large amount of the air pollution in the U.S.
Car exhaust still produces a large amount of the air pollution in the U.S.

Water vapor is the most prevalent gas emission on the planet and accounts for the largest percentage of impact to the greenhouse effect. This is generally not caused by humans in abundance. Two percent of the atmosphere is composed of water vapor, including the clouds, most of which stems from simple gas emission caused by evaporation. This percentage, according to the Environmental Health Center of the National Safety Council, accounts for 66 percent of the greenhouse effect.

Using ice core samples, scientists have determined that greenhouse gas emissions have changed over time. 500 million years ago, the carbon dioxide level was ten times as prevalent as it is today. High concentrations of greenhouse gases continued until the modern era. Humans now live in the Holocene era, which began with the end of the last ice age approximately 10,000 years ago. During this period, gas emissions from naturally-occurring sources such as volcanoes remained relatively stabilized, accounting for only a one percent fluctuation on the atmosphere.

Since 1750, however, the gas emissions from humans have increased significantly, due to the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to this time, carbon emissions were roughly 280 parts per million (ppm). This number has risen steadily since then to arrive at 387 ppm by the early 21st century. These greenhouse gas emissions stem primarily from the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, chlorofluorocarbons used in refrigeration and fertilizers. Each of these culprits has been targeted during the late 20th and early 21st century by the “green movement,” an effort to reduce carbon emissions.

Some studies show that the livestock industry is the largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world.
Some studies show that the livestock industry is the largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world.

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Discussion Comments


@GeorgesPlane- I checked out a great ecological footprint calculator and I was surprised to find that my goods and services footprint was higher than my carbon footprint. I always thought my carbon greenhouse gas emissions made me a polluter, but it is really my consumption patterns. I do a lot of shopping, but I take the train and the subway for most of my trips. The shopping is what accounts for all the resource consumption in my life. It really made me re-think the way that I buy. I am going to try and be more conscious with my purchases, buying fewer things I do not need and using my goods longer.


@chicada- you might be interested to research your carbon footprint and your ecological footprint. The carbon footprint is a measure of the CO2 gas emissions of a person or business. An ecological footprint measures your resource use. The ecological footprint scores your resource use in terms of acreage then translates that to the number of earth's it would take to support a global population with your consumption patterns.

It would be very hard to live within the means of the earth. I have done these ecological footprint audits and I use more than four times my share of resources. The National average is somewhere around seven or eight times each Americans share. You would essentially need to live completely off the land in an of grid home, take public transportation, and use only used and sustainably produced products. You would also likely never be able to fly, because flying is one of the biggest contributors to a person’s carbon footprint.


How do I measure my green house gas emissions? I heard that if everyone lived as we did in the United States it would take something like seven planet Earth's to support us. I am curious to know how much carbon I contribute to the atmosphere and how far my resource consumption is beyond sustainable. I think that I live a green lifestyle, but I want to know if I live within the means of the planet relative to the size of the population.

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