We’ve all heard of greenhouse gases since we were little. The second we started to pay attention to the environment, we heard about them.

But what are they? Where do they come from? And why are they bad for our planet?

These are questions you may have had your entire life, but never asked. We accept that greenhouse gases are bad and that we need to reduce them, but many of us lack a clear understanding of what they are.

Today, we’re going to briefly go over greenhouse gases and their sources, so you can pay closer attention to ways you can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But first…

What exactly are greenhouse gases?

The term has been thrown around so often for years that many don’t even know what they are - though they know they’re bad.

Greenhouse gases bottle up the heat in the earth’s atmosphere and trap it. Because they holds onto this heat and fail to allow it to let it go and disperse, greenhouse gases make the planet warmer.

And in the last 150 years, we’ve seen the amount of greenhouse gases skyrocket.

What are the main sources of greenhouse gases?

There’s a reason why people who are energy-conscious want to help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

The largest contributor to greenhouse gases is the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation.

The EPA compiled a report on greenhouse gas emissions and its main contributors. Its findings were not surprising based on what we already know about fossil fuels.

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In the lead with 28.5%, transportation is the largest generator of greenhouse gas emissions. When you drive a truck, boat, plane, or even a train, burning fossil fuels will add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

This is because cars and trucks burn petroleum-based fuels, including gasoline and diesel.

Electricity production is another large contributor at 28.4%. Why is that? Simply put: around 68% of our electricity is generated by fossil fuels, especially coal and natural gas.

Industry plays a large part: accounting for 22% of emissions. Generally, industries burn fossil fuels for energy, or even conduct chemical reactions to produce goods from raw materials. It’s very likely that some of these activities and products make a significant dent in our greenhouse gas production.

Rounding out the list from the EPA is greenhouse produced by commercial and residential housing (including heating of homes), agriculture, and land use and forestry.

All of these different areas contribute a dangerous amount of greenhouse gas emissions into the air.

Are there any natural sources of greenhouse gases?

Now, it’s easy to simply point to human beings and agree that we’re all terrible for contributing to the greenhouse gas problem. But actually, there are many chemical compounds found naturally within Earth’s atmosphere that act like greenhouse gases.

Carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, nitrous oxide… all are natural compounds in the atmosphere that contribute to the atmospheric concentration of the greenhouse gases that has been rising for decades now.

These natural compounds can be produced from man-made sources, but they often occur often in nature. Water vapor goes into the air from evaporation. Carbon dioxide is “exhaled” back into the air from animals and us.

Methane is emitted mainly from wetlands, where a type of bacteria decomposes organic materials in the absence of oxygen. There are also other, smaller sources of methane, such as termites, oceans, and volcanoes.

The nitrogen cycle of the Earth releases nitrous oxide - another greenhouse gas - into the atmosphere.

Some of the most potent and long-lasting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are fluorinated gases. In this case sadly, there are no natural sources. Rather, these gases are purely man-made.

How do greenhouse gases cause global warming?

This is the million-dollar question. Even if you understand where greenhouse gases come from and that they cause global warming, it’s important to understand how.

The Earth is warmed by the light that comes from the sun. Sunlight passes through our atmosphere until it hits the earth and warms the surface. Then, the heat is radiated outward, back towards space.

This is how the planet has been naturally warmed for all of its existence.

Greenhouse gases essentially wrap the planet in a thick blanket. The heat that radiates out from the surface of the planet is then caught by the blanket of greenhouse gases, preventing the heat from escaping.

Imagine someone wrapped you in a blanket on a chilly morning. As the day progresses, the sun comes out and the air warms up. It might become too warm for comfort. So you take off the blanket and let the heat that was trapped underneath out into the air. This lets you cool to a safe temperature, preventing you from overheating.

In the case of global warming, the Earth cannot take off its “blanket.” While these gases eventually dissipate, there are many that are semi-permanent which continue to heat the surface of the Earth.

Now, some regions of the world will welcome warmer temperatures, while some will not. As the atmosphere grows warmer, evaporation and precipitation will increase. Some areas will experience more evaporation, causing more drought. Other areas will receive more precipitation, causing more floods.

Glaciers and other ice will melt in the warmer oceans, causing sea levels to rise. In addition, warmer ocean water will expand, contributing to the rise of sea levels even further.

But the biggest impact will be on wildlife and natural plant communities. The planet’s ecosystem has not had to deal with this relatively-rapid surge in greenhouse gas emissions from the past 50 years or so.

As a result, the Earth could warm faster than species can evolve to handle it. Certain vegetation and wildlife could die out as a result of the new environments they are tasked to survive in.

What can you do?

The first step in solving a problem is to understand it. The best thing you can do is know what causes this problem.

Now that you have taken the first step in educating yourself, you can begin to identify the activities you carry out that may contribute to the problem. Knowledge is half the battle; the other half lies in adjusting your lifestyle to lessen your impact on the world and its climate.