What are Greenhouse Gases?

June 15, 2010, by Michael Gillenwater

[Editor’s Note:  This blog post was originally published on June 15th, 2010.  The post in its current form, has since been edited to include updated content as of April 1st, 2015.]

Paired with this post on GHGs is an updated post on Global Warming Potential (GWP) values used in the accounting of GHG emissions.

Back when I was in charge of developing and authoring the official U.S. inventory of GHG emissions for the U.S. government, I wrote a section for that report on describing GHGs. I am crimping from the latest U.S. EPA national inventory report. The text is mostly unchanged since I wrote it many years ago, although the statistics have been updated.

[The following excerpt is taken, with some editing, from the Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks.]

Although the Earth’s atmosphere consists mainly of oxygen and nitrogen, neither plays a significant role in enhancing the greenhouse effect because both are essentially transparent to terrestrial radiation. The greenhouse effect is primarily a function of the concentration of water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and other trace gases in the atmosphere that absorb the terrestrial radiation leaving the surface of the Earth (IPCC 2013). Changes in the atmospheric concentrations of these greenhouse gases can alter the balance of energy transfers between the atmosphere, space, land, and the oceans. A gauge of these changes is called radiative forcing, which is a measure of the influence a perturbation has in altering the balance of incoming and outgoing energy in the Earth-atmosphere system (IPCC 2013). Holding everything else constant, increases in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere will produce positive radiative forcing (i.e., a net increase in the absorption of energy by the Earth).

Human activities are continuing to affect the Earth’s energy budget by changing the emissions and resulting atmospheric concentrations of radiatively important gases and aerosols and by changing land surface properties (IPCC 2013).

Naturally occurring greenhouse gases include water vapor, CO2, CH4, N2O, and ozone (O3). Several classes of halogenated substances that contain fluorine, chlorine, or bromine are also greenhouse gases, but they are, for the most part, solely a product of industrial activities. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) are halocarbons that contain chlorine, while halocarbons that contain bromine are referred to as bromofluorocarbons (i.e., halons). As stratospheric ozone depleting substances, CFCs, HCFCs, and halons are covered under the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. The UNFCCC defers to this earlier international treaty. Consequently, Parties to the UNFCCC are not required to include these gases in national greenhouse gas inventories. Some other fluorine-containing halogenated substances—hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3)—do not deplete stratospheric ozone but are potent greenhouse gases. These latter substances are addressed by the UNFCCC and accounted for in national greenhouse gas inventories.

There are also several gases that, although they do not have a commonly agreed upon direct radiative forcing effect, do influence the global radiation budget. These tropospheric gases include carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and tropospheric (ground level) ozone (O3). Tropospheric ozone is formed by two precursor pollutants, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the presence of ultraviolet light (sunlight).

Aerosols are extremely small particles or liquid droplets suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere that are often composed of sulfur compounds, carbonaceous combustion products (e.g., black carbon), crustal materials (e.g., dust) and other human induced pollutants. They can affect the absorptive characteristics of the atmosphere (e.g., scattering incoming sunlight away from the Earth’s surface) and can play a role in affecting cloud formation and lifetime affecting the radiative forcing of clouds and precipitation patterns. Comparatively, however, while the understanding of aerosols has increased in recent years, they still account for the largest contribution to uncertainty estimates in global energy budgets (IPCC 2013).

CO2, CH4, and N2O are continuously emitted to and removed from the atmosphere by natural processes on Earth. Anthropogenic activities, however, can cause additional quantities of these and other greenhouse gases to be emitted or sequestered, thereby changing their global average atmospheric concentrations. Natural activities such as respiration by plants or animals and seasonal cycles of plant growth and decay are examples of processes that only cycle carbon or nitrogen between the atmosphere and organic biomass. Such processes, except when directly or indirectly perturbed out of equilibrium by anthropogenic activities, generally do not alter average atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations over decadal timeframes. Climatic changes resulting from anthropogenic activities, however, could have positive or negative feedback effects on these natural systems.

Water Vapor (H2O). Overall, the most abundant and dominant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is water vapor. Water vapor is neither long-lived nor well mixed in the atmosphere, varying spatially from 0 to 2 percent (IPCC 1996). In addition, atmospheric water can exist in several physical states including gaseous, liquid, and solid. Human activities are not believed to affect directly the average global concentration of water vapor, but the radiative forcing produced by the increased concentrations of other greenhouse gases may indirectly affect the hydrologic cycle. A warmer atmosphere has an increased water vapor holding capacity, and increased concentrations of water vapor can affect the formation and lifetime of clouds, which can both absorb and reflect solar and terrestrial radiation. Aircraft contrails, which consist of water vapor and other aircraft emittants, are aviation-induced clouds with the same radiative forcing effects as high-altitude cirrus clouds (IPCC 1999).

Carbon Dioxide (CO2). In nature, carbon is cycled between various atmospheric, oceanic, land biotic, marine biotic, and mineral reservoirs. The largest fluxes occur between the atmosphere and terrestrial biota, and between the atmosphere and surface water of the oceans. In the atmosphere, carbon predominantly exists in its oxidized form as CO2. Atmospheric CO2 is part of this global carbon cycle, and therefore its fate is a complex function of geochemical and biological processes. CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere increased from approximately 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv) in pre-industrial times to 395 ppmv in 2013, a 41.1 percent increase (IPCC 2007 and NOAA/ESRL 2014). The IPCC definitively states that “the increase of CO2 … is caused by anthropogenic emissions from the use of fossil fuel as a source of energy and from land use and land use changes, in particular agriculture” (IPCC 2013). The predominant source of anthropogenic CO2 emissions is the combustion of fossil fuels. Forest clearing, other biomass burning, and some non-energy production processes (e.g., cement production) also emit notable quantities of CO2. In its Fifth Assessment Report, the IPCC stated “it is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together,” of which CO2 is the most important (IPCC 2013).

Methane (CH4).CH4 is primarily produced through anaerobic decomposition of organic matter in biological systems. Agricultural processes such as wetland rice cultivation, enteric fermentation in animals, and the decomposition of animal wastes emit CH4, as does the decomposition of municipal solid wastes. CH4 is also emitted during the production and distribution of natural gas and petroleum, and is released as a by-product of coal mining and incomplete fossil fuel combustion. Atmospheric concentrations of CH4 have increased by about 152 percent since 1750, from a pre-industrial value of about 700 ppb to 1,762 – 1,893 ppb in 2012, although the rate of increase has been declining. The IPCC has estimated that slightly more than half of the current CH4 flux to the atmosphere is anthropogenic, from human activities such as agriculture, fossil fuel use, and waste disposal (IPCC 2007). CH4 is removed from the atmosphere through a reaction with the hydroxyl radical (OH) and is ultimately converted to CO2. Minor removal processes also include reaction with chlorine in the marine boundary layer, a soil sink, and stratospheric reactions. Increasing emissions of CH4 reduce the concentration of OH, a feedback that may increase the atmospheric lifetime of CH4 (IPCC 2013).

Nitrous Oxide (N2O).Anthropogenic sources of N2O emissions include agricultural soils, especially production of nitrogen-fixing crops and forages, the use of synthetic and manure fertilizers, and manure deposition by livestock; fossil fuel combustion, especially from mobile combustion; adipic (nylon) and nitric acid production; wastewater treatment and waste incineration; and biomass burning. The atmospheric concentration of N2O has increased by 20 percent since 1750, from a pre-industrial value of about 270 ppb to 324-326 ppb in 2012, a concentration that has not been exceeded during the last thousand years. N2O is primarily removed from the atmosphere by the photolytic action of sunlight in the stratosphere (IPCC 2007).

Ozone (O3). Ozone is present in both the upper stratosphere, where it shields the Earth from harmful levels of ultraviolet radiation, and at lower concentrations in the troposphere, where it is the main component of anthropogenic photochemical “smog.” During the last two decades, emissions of anthropogenic chlorine and bromine-containing halocarbons, such as CFCs, have depleted stratospheric ozone concentrations. This loss of ozone in the stratosphere has resulted in negative radiative forcing, representing an indirect effect of anthropogenic emissions of chlorine and bromine compounds (IPCC 2013). The depletion of stratospheric ozone and its radiative forcing was expected to reach a maximum in about 2000 before starting to recover. The past increase in tropospheric ozone, which is also a greenhouse gas, is estimated to provide the third largest increase in direct radiative forcing since the pre-industrial era, behind CO2 and CH4. Tropospheric ozone is produced from complex chemical reactions of volatile organic compounds mixing with NOx in the presence of sunlight. The tropospheric concentrations of ozone and these other pollutants are short-lived and, therefore, spatially variable (IPCC 2013).

Halocarbons, Perfluorocarbons, Sulfur Hexafluoride, and Nitrogen Triflouride. Halocarbons are, for the most part, man-made chemicals that have both direct and indirect radiative forcing effects. Halocarbons that contain chlorine (CFCs, HCFCs, methyl chloroform, and carbon tetrachloride) and bromine (halons, methyl bromide, and hydrobromofluorocarbons HFCs) result in stratospheric ozone depletion and are therefore controlled under the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Although CFCs and HCFCs include potent global warming gases, their net radiative forcing effect on the atmosphere is reduced because they cause stratospheric ozone depletion, which itself is an important greenhouse gas in addition to shielding the Earth from harmful levels of ultraviolet radiation. Under the Montreal Protocol, the United States phased out the production and importation of halons by 1994 and of CFCs by 1996. Under the Copenhagen Amendments to the Protocol, a cap was placed on the production and importation of HCFCs by non-Article 538 countries beginning in 1996, and then followed by a complete phase-out by the year 2030.

HFCs, PFCs, SF6, and NF3 are not ozone depleting substances, and therefore are not covered under the Montreal Protocol. They are, however, powerful greenhouse gases. HFCs are primarily used as replacements for ozone depleting substances but also emitted as a by-product of the HCFC-22 manufacturing process. Currently, they have a small aggregate radiative forcing impact, but it is anticipated that their contribution to overall radiative forcing will increase (IPCC 2013). PFCs, SF6, and NF3 are predominantly emitted from various industrial processes including aluminum smelting, semiconductor manufacturing, electric power transmission and distribution, and magnesium casting. Currently, the radiative forcing impact of PFCs, SF6, and NF3 is also small, but they have a significant growth rate, extremely long atmospheric lifetimes, and are strong absorbers of infrared radiation, and therefore have the potential to influence climate far into the future (IPCC 2013).

Carbon Monoxide (CO).Carbon monoxide has an indirect radiative forcing effect by elevating concentrations of CH4 and tropospheric ozone through chemical reactions with other atmospheric constituents (e.g., the hydroxyl radical, OH) that would otherwise assist in destroying CH4 and tropospheric ozone. Carbon monoxide is created when carbon containing fuels are burned incompletely. Through natural processes in the atmosphere, it is eventually oxidized to CO2. Carbon monoxide concentrations are both short-lived in the atmosphere and spatially variable.

Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).The primary climate change effects of nitrogen oxides (i.e., NO and NO2) are indirect and result from their role in promoting the formation of ozone in the troposphere, are a precursor to nitrate particles (i.e., aerosols) and, to a lesser degree, lower stratosphere, where they have positive radiative forcing effects. Additionally, NOx emissions are also likely to decrease CH4 concentrations, thus having a negative radiative forcing effect (IPCC 2013). Nitrogen oxides are created from lightning, soil microbial activity, biomass burning (both natural and anthropogenic fires) fuel combustion, and, in the stratosphere, from the photo-degradation of N2O. Concentrations of NOx are both relatively short-lived in the atmosphere and spatially variable.

Nonmethane Volatile Organic Compounds (NMVOCs).Non-CH4 volatile organic compounds include substances such as propane, butane, and ethane. These compounds participate, along with NOx, in the formation of tropospheric ozone and other photochemical oxidants. NMVOCs are emitted primarily from transportation and industrial processes, as well as biomass burning and non-industrial consumption of organic solvents. Concentrations of NMVOCs tend to be both short-lived in the atmosphere and spatially variable.

Aerosols. Aerosols are extremely small particles or liquid droplets found in the atmosphere. They can be produced by natural events such as dust storms and volcanic activity, or by anthropogenic processes such as fuel combustion and biomass burning. Aerosols affect radiative forcing differently than greenhouse gases, and their radiative effects occur through direct and indirect mechanisms: directly by scattering and absorbing solar radiation; and indirectly by increasing droplet counts that modify the formation, precipitation efficiency, and radiative properties of clouds.

Aerosols are removed from the atmosphere relatively rapidly by precipitation. Despite advances in understanding of cloud-aerosol interactions, the contribution of aerosols to radiative forcing are difficult to quantify because aerosols generally have short atmospheric lifetimes, and have number concentrations, size distributions, and compositions that vary regionally, spatially, and temporally (IPCC 2013). Various categories of aerosols exist, including naturally produced aerosols such as soil dust, sea salt, biogenic aerosols, sulfates, nitrates, and volcanic aerosols, and anthropogenically manufactured aerosols such as industrial dust and carbonaceous aerosols (e.g., black carbon, organic carbon) from transportation, coal combustion, cement manufacturing, waste incineration, and biomass burning.

The net effect of aerosols on radiative forcing is believed to be negative (i.e., net cooling effect on the climate), although because they remain in the atmosphere for only days to weeks, their concentrations respond rapidly to changes in emissions. Locally, the negative radiative forcing effects of aerosols can offset the positive forcing of greenhouse gases, although recent models show that these negative effects may be significantly smaller than previously estimated (IPCC 2013). The IPCC’s Third Assessment Report notes that “the indirect radiative effect of aerosols is now understood to also encompass effects on ice and mixed-phase clouds, but the magnitude of any such indirect effect is not known, although it is likely to be positive” (IPCC 2001). Additionally, current research suggests that another constituent of aerosols, black carbon, has a positive radiative forcing, and that its presence induces a complex cloud response (IPCC 2013). The primary anthropogenic emission sources of black carbon include diesel exhaust and open biomass burning.

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9 responses to “What are Greenhouse Gases?”

  1. Eros Artuso says:

    Emissions from renewable sources. Is it true that the GHG Protocol has recently released an updated version of the emission factors reporting an emission factors different from zero associate to electricity produced from renewable sources? Does that mean that electricity produced from renewable sources emits CO2?

  2. I’m not aware of WRI releasing such info.

  3. Joyce Coffee says:

    Thanks for this consice summary. Could you help me understand the relative mitigative value of energy efficiency versus refrigerant management? My gut tells me that preventing a molecule of HFC with a GWP of 1,000 from being emitted (through relatively simple refrigerant leak management) offers as big a mitigative benefit as preventing C02 through retrofitting several commercial properties. Let’s assume a commercial building has a carbon footprint of e.g. 410 MTCO2e (based only on KWH and BTU, not figitive HFC emissions). Wouldn’t I have to retrofit 7 of those buildings to be 30% more efficient to get even close to the benefit of reducing a metric ton(or what would be the unit? maybe I don’t understand the connection between molocule and metric ton) of refrigerant leakage?

  4. M. Arip says:

    why N2O is a greenhose gases?

  5. M. Arip,

    I suggest you look at Chapter 8 of the IPCC Working Group I, Fifth Assessment report on Radiative Forcing for an explanation of atmospheric N2O, its atmospheric lifetime and properties for trapping terrestrial (infrared) radiation. You can find the Chapter for download here:


  6. Kellen J. says:

    Hi Mr. Gillenwater,
    Thanks for the summary. Since water vapor is the most abundant and dominant GHG, does it mean water vapor has the biggest impact on climate changes/temperature increase? if so, why we spend so much money on the reduction on CO2? When talk about climate changes or GHG, CO2 is the first thing comes to our mind, why is that? And another question is, greenhouse effect is not all bad, but also has a positive side for the planet, how do we know in what kind of degree it becomes negative?


    Kellen, J

  7. Kellen,

    Water vapour is a power greenhouse gas. But, humans are not directly changing the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere. I suggest you review the IPCC Assessment reports if you would like to learn about this issue. The issue of water vapour is treated in depth and with proper scientific rigour. Look at volume one for content addressing atmospheric issues, and volume 3 for an objective discussion of both positive and negative impacts from increased radiative forcing from greenhouse gases, including the feedbacks associated with changes in the distribution of water vapour in the atmosphere.

    You can find these reports at:


  8. Mikel says:

    sulphur dioxide is a green house gas

    • Michael Gillenwater says:


      It is a greenhouse gas, but it is not a long-lived greenhouse gas. When we talk about GHG emission inventories, we are focused on those gases from anthropogenic sources that that long atmospheric lifetimes, such that they have a high cumulative radiative forcing effect over many years. SO2 does have a radiative forcing effect, but it has a short atmospheric lifetime, and as such a given input to the atmosphere has a small global warming potential over a decadal time frame.


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