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Transportation and Climate Change Clearinghouse

Overview of Climate Change

What are Greenhouse Gases?

Some greenhouse gases occur naturally in the atmosphere, while others result from human activities. Naturally occurring greenhouse gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Certain human activities, however, add to the levels of most of these naturally occurring gases:

  • Carbon dioxide is released to the atmosphere when solid waste, fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal), and wood and wood products are burned.
  • Methane is emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil. Methane emissions also result from the decomposition of organic wastes in municipal solid waste landfills, and the raising of livestock.
  • Nitrous oxide is emitted during agricultural and industrial activities, as well as during combustion of solid waste and fossil fuels.

Greenhouse gases that are not naturally occurring include byproducts of foam production, refrigeration, and air conditioning called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), as well as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs) generated by industrial processes.

Each greenhouse gas (GHG) differs in its ability to absorb heat in the atmosphere. HFCs and PFCs are the most heat-absorbent. Methane traps over 21 times more heat than carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide absorbs 270 times more heat than carbon dioxide. Often, estimates of greenhouse gas emissions are presented in units of millions of metric tons of carbon equivalents (MMTCE), which weights each gas by its GWP value, or Global Warming Potential.

In the U.S., our energy-related activities account for three-quarters of our human-generated greenhouse gas emissions, mostly in the form of carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. More than half the energy-related emissions come from large stationary sources such as power plants, while about a third comes from transportation. Industrial processes (such as the production of cement, steel, and aluminum), agriculture, forestry, other land use, and waste management are also important sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

For a better understanding of where greenhouse gas emissions come from, governments at the federal, state and local levels prepare emissions inventories, which track emissions from various parts of the economy such as transportation, electricity production, industry, agriculture, forestry, and other sectors. EPA publishes the official national inventory of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and the latest greenhouse gas inventory shows that in 2005 the U.S. emitted over 7.2 billon metric tons of greenhouse gases (a million metric tons of CO2 equivalents (MMTCO2e) is roughly equal to the annual GHG emissions of an average U.S. power plant).

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