An introduction to greenhouse gases

An introduction to greenhouse gases

Published April 9, 2024

2 minute read

Greenhouse gases, or GHGs, are those which trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere by absorbing and emitting radiation. This leads to a rise in temperature which contributes to climate change.  

Organisations have a responsibility to control their greenhouse gas emissions so as not to exacerbate this situation and negatively impact the planet. How can you do this effectively? The first step is to educate yourself on what greenhouse gases are, how they are released, and what you can do to reduce their emissions.  

It's time to meet the major greenhouse gases:

Meet carbon dioxide, also known as CO2. This gas is responsible for around 80% of global emissions related to human activity and is released when fossil fuels, waste, and trees are burned. Which of these activities accounts for the most CO2 emissions? You guessed it! The combustion of fossil fuels that we commonly burn to use as an energy source and for transportation releases the most carbon dioxide.  

You can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by limiting your use of fossil fuels and using alternative sources instead. For example, instead of all employees using their own car to get to work every day, consider carpooling to reduce emissions. You could even switch to an electric car or bicycle.  

This is methane, or CH4, which can trap heat up to 25 times more than carbon dioxide and stay in the Earth’s atmosphere for around 12 years. This gas is usually emitted from raising livestock, as they produce methane during digestion, leaks from natural gas and petroleum systems, coal mining, landfills, and more. 

How can you reduce methane emissions? Industries that use natural gas or petroleum can improve the types of equipment chosen for its production, storage and transportation to limit leaks. Farmers can consider enhancing their manure management processes and reducing the number of livestock on farms, while landfill workers can reduce methane emissions by destroying methane in flares or capturing and converting it into renewable forms of energy. 

You may be surprised to see water vapour on this list, but it’s one of the most common greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Unlike the other greenhouse gases, water vapour acts uniquely as it reacts to what is happening in the climate. This means that the warmer the temperature, the more water evaporates, which heats the atmosphere.  

Essentially, water vapour is not released directly because of human activities, as it is a part of the natural hydrologic cycle. However, individuals can reduce the use of other greenhouse gases which will in turn decrease the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere.  

Say hello to nitrous oxide! Nitrous oxide, aka N2O, has a global warming potential 298 times more powerful than carbon dioxide and can stay in the atmosphere for over 100 years. This gas is released through activities such as using nitrogen-based fertilizers, burning fuels, producing nitric acid and treating wastewater.  

How can we reduce the emissions of nitrous oxide? Reducing the use of nitrogen-based fertilizer is one way, in addition to limiting fuel combustion. This can be done by taking public transportation instead of your own car or carpooling. Upgrading equipment used in the chemical industry can also help decrease nitrous oxide emissions.  

This group of greenhouse gases is known as fluorinated gases. They’re made up of four different types of gases which include nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and perfluorocarbons (PFCs). Nitrogen trifluoride is released during semiconductor manufacturing, while sulfur hexafluoride is an insulator in the transmission of electrical equipment. Hydrofluorocarbons are found in refrigerants, fire retardants, aerosols and more. Perfluorocarbons or PFCs are released during aluminium production and in the manufacturing of semiconductors.  

One of the best ways to reduce the emissions of fluorinated gases is through substitution. Organisations can find alternatives for each of these four categories, including substances which have a lower global warming potential.  

Now that you know more about greenhouse gases, let’s dive into greenhouse gas accounting so you can actually measure your organisation’s emissions. This will help your business make more sustainable decisions to help benefit the planet. 

Read our greenhouse gas accounting blog

Author Dina Adlouni

Dina is a Content Marketing Manager at EcoOnline who has been writing about health and safety, ESG and sustainability, as well as chemical safety for the past four years. She regularly collaborates with internal subject matter experts to create relevant and insightful content.

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