Posted in Awareness, Environment

Greenhouse Gases – The Biggest Contributors of Carbon Dioxide

Written by Jesse Richardson on February 19, 2011 with 5 Comments

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Carbon FootprintLast week, the Republican-controlled House blocked the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases, which, to scientists, are part of the root cause for global warming. The main supporter of the block, Texas Republican Ted Poe, aimed at curbing funding for EPA’s implementation of greenhouse gas regulations for the fiscal year of 2011. With this in the news, it’s important to identify the areas that are the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases; are they industry, transportation, or what?

First, just to be clear, greenhouse gases are any atmospheric gases that “can absorb and emit longwave (infrared) radiation in a planetary atmosphere”, according to The Encyclopedia of Earth. These contribute to what is known as the greenhouse effect, which can be best understood as a natural process that heats the Earth’s surface and atmosphere – just think of a greenhouse! The concern, of course, is that with human’s increased activity, we contribute vast amounts of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, which in turn heats the planet quicker than normal. The consequences of this are unknown, but may result in extreme weather, extinction of some species, and climate change.

Let’s focus just on carbon dioxide, which makes up about 85 percent  of total greenhouse gas emissions, followed by methane, nitrous oxide, and HFC’s among others. So, what contributes the most CO2?


Industry, while the not largest contributor alone, is a titan of greenhouse gas emissions here in the states. In fact, iron and steel production alone are huge contributors to CO2 emissions, beating out waste combustion, chemical production, agriculture, and other various metal productions by a long stretch. It does, however, come close to cement manufacturing and natural gas systems.

If we take industry in general, however, it acts as its own behemoth of CO2 emissions, coming close to fossil fuel combustion’s emissions. Part of this is because CO2 acts as byproduct of various non-energy related activities and uses. The EPA outlines the four main times of industrial process CO2 emissions:

  • Production and consumption of mineral products such as cement, lime and soda ash
  • Production of metals such as iron and steel, aluminum, zinc and lead
  • Chemical production (e.g., ammonia, petrochemicals and titanium dioxide)
  • Consumption of petroleum products in feedstocks and other end-uses

Carbon Sequestration… or lack thereof

When biomass removes CO2 from the atmosphere and stores it, we refer to it as carbon sequestration. Plants, trees, and even pastures with vegetation will undergo this process yearly. Really, it depends on the type of practice that goes on here, because if it is done improperly, the land can be both a source and a sink.

How would this be a source? Deforestation is one example. Since 1990, there has been a noticeable change in carbon sequestration, with more standing forests being destroyed for agriculture or resource collection. Inherently, there are two problems here: first, the forests can no longer gather carbons, and second, the carbon sequestered in trees is emitted into the atmosphere upon deforestation.

While this is a minor source of carbon here in the US, it is a major and significant problem globally, which, after all, is what we must focus on when thinking of climate change and global warming. Solution? Plant a tree.

Fossil Fuel Combustion

You may have guessed it: fossil fuels.

Described as being “formed from the organic remains of prehistoric plants and animals,” in their combustion, fossil fuels emit more CO2  for transportation and energy than both iron and steel production and the non-energy use of fuels. Fossil fuels don’t just refer to good ol’ fashion petroleum, though. Instead, coal and natural gas also emit tons of CO2 (literally and figuratively) each year. When these products are burned or “combusted” to produce energy, the carbon stored within is released “almost entirely as CO2.”

We use these fuels for transportation, generating electricity, and industrial uses like those above. Here’s a breakdown the EPA has provided regarding CO2 emission from fossil fuel combustion:

CO2 Emissions Graph

As we can see, electricity generation takes the cake for CO2 emissions, being largely fueled by the use of coal. While that may be so, transportation comes in a close second and is largely fueled by petroleum.


While the EPA now faces significant hurdles in overcoming budgetary issues, they still have an opportunity to increase support for renewable energy sources and ventures like solar and wind energy. However, while these will help curb electric costs, they are not forms of combustible energy. Natural gas is one option, but even it is riddled with complexities. Nevertheless, one thing remains sure: those in lawmaking need to come to an agreement for stable, efficient, and promising energy plan.


There are currently 5 Comments on Greenhouse Gases – The Biggest Contributors of Carbon Dioxide. Perhaps you would like to add one of your own?

  1. [...] is it bad for the environment? As stated, perc is powerful chemical with powerful effects. The small doses humans can handle can [...]

  2. what is the contribution of domestic animals(in percentage) to the green house gas emissions?

  3. Your article omits a lot of key information.All of the numbers and references you cite, incluing the EPA graphs, are only anthropogenic contributions. Conveniently, the natural contributors are left out, which is overwhelmingly the largest contributor to greenhouse effects. When these are taken into consideration, including water vapor, man made contributions total a mere .6 percent. Now, while we may in fact be experiencing a period of warming, there is asolutely no evidence that any adjustments to any degree in our lifestyles, or changes in energy sources, would have any effect at all given the actual numbers. Should we be doing everything, sensibly, we can to maintain a clean environment? Of course. But the earth has never been static in it’s 4.5 billion year history nor has anyone yet put forth what our perfect mean temperature should be. If you put out numbers, put out all of the numbers and let readers decide. But then again, that may not yield the desired result.

    • Thanks for the comment, TM.

      The article was written in the context of the EPA regulating greenhouse gas emissions – it focused on our emissions and where they come from. While it is certainly useful to know all the contributors in greenhouse gases, including those naturally occurring and not caused by humans, the focus remains on how we affect the environment or – for anyone with doubt that we as humans have the power elicit change – how we may affect the environment.

      The article is not intended to lead people to believe that global warming, which certainly is occurring, is exclusively anthropogenic. (I’ll revise the article to further stress this, though.)

      What’s more, there is no doubt – at least in my mind – that deforestation, the use of fossil fuels, and unsustainable industry are poor policies. It’s certainly debatable if humans spur changes in the environment. As you said, no one has come up with a perfect temperature – this is true. I would only argue that, similarly, no one knows how delicate the atmosphere is. As such, we should scrutinize our use of resources and how our energy policy affects not only this generation, but generations down the line. Even if we were to contribute 1 or 2% – are you certain that this negligible? Or, if you prefer, do you think that we are currently doing every “sensible” thing we can to maintain a clean environment?

  4. CO2 is currently reading at 394 ppm (rounded), i.e., 394/1,000,000 parts.
    What is the preferred level of CO2?

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