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The presence of greenhouse gases in the earth’s stratosphere results in some of the heat radiated by the earth being reflected back to the earth’s surface rather than transmitted to outer space as shown in the ray diagram below.

Ray diagram of solar energy flows showing effect of greenhouse gases

Methane has a much stronger warming impact than carbon dioxide though a much shorter half life. It is the main constituent of natural gas, one of our main fossil fuels, which is widely used for space and water heating and increasingly for generating electricity. When burnt, methane combines with oxygen to form carbon dioxide and water vapour, which is also a greenhouse gas.

Nitrous oxides also have a much stronger warming impact than carbon dioxide and are released naturally by bacteria, digestion of ruminant animals like cows and in the combustion of fossil fuels.

Fluorinated gases have the highest warming impact and are a family of synthetic chemicals primarily used as refrigerants for air conditioners and in refridgerators. These chemicals are being phased out by international agreement and are being replaced by naturally occurring compounds with low global impact warming and low ozone depletion potential. These compounds include hydrocarbons like butane, ammonia and carbon dioxide. So paradoxically carbon dioxide has beneficial as well as adverse environmental properties.




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