Greenhouse Gases – The Biggest Contributors of Carbon Dioxide

Last 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?

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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 GraphPin It

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.

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