Frequently Asked Questions
Frequently Asked Question 2.1
How do Human Activities Contribute to Climate Change
and How do They Compare with Natural Influences?
Human activities contribute to climate change by causing
changes in Earth’s atmosphere in the amounts of greenhouse gases, aerosols (small particles), and cloudiness. The largest known contribution comes from the burning of fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide gas to the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases and aerosols affect climate by altering incoming solar radiation and outgoing infrared (thermal) radiation that are part of Earth’s energy balance. Changing the atmospheric abundance or properties of these gases and particles can lead to a warming or cooling of the climate system. Since the start of the industrial era (about 1750), the overall effect of human activities on climate has been a warming influence. The human impact on climate during this era greatly exceeds that due to known changes in natural processes, such as solar changes and volcanic eruptions.
Human activities result in emissions of four principal greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and the halocarbons (a group of gases containing fluorine, chlorine and bromine). These gases accumulate in the atmosphere, causing concentrations to increase with time. Significant increases in all of these gases have occurred in the industrial era (see Figure 1). All of these increases are attributable to human activities. •
Carbon dioxide has increased from fossil fuel use in transportation, building heating and cooling and the manufacture of cement and other goods. Deforestation releases CO2 and reduces its uptake by plants. Carbon dioxide is also released in natural processes such as the decay of plant matter.
Methane has increased as a result of human activities related to agriculture, natural gas distribution and landfills. Methane is also released from natural processes that occur, for example, in wetlands. Methane concentrations are not currently increasing in the atmosphere because growth rates decreased over the last two decades.
Nitrous oxide is also emitted by human activities such as fertilizer use and fossil fuel burning. Natural processes in soils and the oceans also release N2O.
Halocarbon gas concentrations have increased primarily due to human activities. Natural processes are also a small source. Principal halocarbons include the chlorofluorocarbons (e.g., CFC-11 and CFC-12), which were used extensively as refrigeration agents and in other industrial processes before their presence in the atmosphere was found to cause stratospheric
ozone depletion. The abundance of chlorofluorocarbon gases is decreasing as a result of international regulations designed to protect the ozone layer.
FAQ 2.1, Figure 1. Atmospheric concentrations of important long-lived greenhouse gases over the last 2,000 years. Increases since about 1750 are attributed to human activities in the industrial era. Concentration units are parts per million (ppm) or parts per billion (ppb), indicating the number of molecules of the greenhouse gas per million or billion air molecules, respectively, in an atmospheric sample. (Data combined and simplified from Chapters 6 and 2 of this report.)
Ozone is a greenhouse gas that is continually produced and destroyed in the atmosphere by chemical reactions. In the troposphere, human activities have increased ozone through the release of gases such as carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and
nitrogen oxide, which chemically react to produce ozone. As
mentioned above, halocarbons released by human activities
destroy ozone in the stratosphere and have caused the ozone
hole over Antarctica.
Water vapour is the most abundant and important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. However, human activities have only
a small direct influence on the amount of atmospheric water vapour. Indirectly, humans have the potential to...
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