Part 2 in our – Putting a price on carbon series

The reason for the trend toward pricing carbon is the negative effect of the rise of carbon emissions on the environment and society. In this second entry of our blog post series “Putting a price on carbon,” we go a bit more into the details of this problem.

Why focus on carbon dioxide emissions?

The impact of greenhouse gases on warming the atmosphere depends on two factors: The higher the 1) ability of a gas to absorb long-wave radiation and the higher its 2) concentration in the atmosphere, the bigger its contribution to the greenhouse effect.

The level of concentration in the atmosphere is a function of the rate of release and its persistence in the atmosphere. While water vapor makes up for most of the volume of all greenhouse gases, it remains in the atmosphere only for several days, and humans can do little to reduce its concentration.

To the contrary, carbon dioxide can remain there for years or even decades, humans can do much to lower these emissions, and it is much more prevalent than methane and nitrous oxides.

1. What is the human-made greenhouse effect?

The greenhouse gas effect is a process that keeps heat within the atmosphere of the earth and warms its surface. As a result, it makes the earth a habitable planet where life can flourish.

There are two types of greenhouse effects: a natural one and a human-made (anthropogenic) one. The natural one results mostly from the evaporation of water from the world’s oceans which cover about 70 percent of the earth’s surface.

The human-made greenhouse gas effect results from activities that emit additional greenhouse gases. Humans create an enhanced greenhouse effect which adds to the natural one and reinforces it, causing further global warming.

2. Which gases contribute to the enhanced greenhouse effect?

The most prevalent human-caused greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide (CO2). It makes up about three-quarters of total emissions [Global Emissions | Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (].

Methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases are also contributing greenhouse gases. To arrive at the total volume of greenhouse gas emissions – and measure the total human impact – the individual volumes are all translated into CO2 equivalents (CO2e).

Since the start of the industrial revolution, the volume of these gases has increased tremendously – both in total and per capita. In 2016, these greenhouse gases added up to almost 50 billion metric tons of CO2e emitted annually.

3. What are the ecological consequences of the enhanced greenhouse effect?

Some of the most important ecological consequences are:

  • melting of the glaciers and the arctic ice shield
  • rising sea levels,
  • change of the ocean currents,
  • warming of oceans, lakes, and rivers,
  • acidification of the oceans,
  • shortage of water supplies,
  • thawing of permafrost soil,
  • more extreme weather events, such as heat-waves, floods, droughts, or storms,
  • more forest fires,
  • mass extinction of species.

4. What economic problems result from the enhanced greenhouse gas effect?

The most important economic problems are:

  • higher costs for coast protection,
  • higher costs to guarantee adequate water supply and water quality,
  • higher costs to grow food and produce agricultural products or crop failures,
  • cost-intensive relocation of communities and production sites,
  • a higher number of heat-caused illnesses and deaths as well
  • higher costs from the increased spread of illnesses such as malaria or malnutrition,
  • the heat caused fall in human productivity,
  • higher costs to repair and compensate damages from extreme weather events

5. Which sectors are the drivers of humanly caused greenhouse gas emissions?

As of 2016, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide came from the following sectors [Sector by sector: where do global greenhouse gas emissions come from? – Our World in Data]:

  • energy (most importantly, use in industry, buildings, and transportation) – 73.2 percent of total CO2e,
  • agriculture, forestry, and land use – 18.4 percent,
  • chemical and cement industry – 5.2 percent,
  • waste – 3.2 percent

6. Which countries are the most important drivers of carbon dioxide emissions?

As of 2016, the top ten emitters of humanly caused greenhouse gases – which account for more than half of all emissions – were [Greenhouse gas emissions – Our World in Data]:

  • China – 11.58 billion metric tons CO2e,
  • United States – 5.83 billion,
  • India – 3.24 billion,
  • Russia – 2.39 billion,
  • Indonesia – 2.23 billion,
  • Brazil – 1.38 billion,
  • Japan – 1.26 billion,
  • Iran – 0.87 billion,
  • Germany – 0.81 billion,
  • Canada – 0.78 billion.
carbon emissions
carbon emissions

In next week’s post, we take a closer look at how to quantify the economic effects of greenhouse gas emissions.