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The Greenhouse Effect: Global Warming and Climate Change

You have probably noticed that when you leave your car under direct sunlight on a sunny day, the interior of the car gets much warmer than the air outside, and you may have wondered why the car acts like a heat trap. This is because glass at thicknesses encountered in practice transmits over 90 percent of radiation in the visible range and is practically opaque (nontransparent) to radiation in the longer wavelength infrared regions. Therefore, glass allows the solar radiation to enter freely but blocks the infrared radiation emitted by the interior surfaces. This causes a rise in the interior temperature as a result of the thermal energy buildup in the car. This heating effect is known as the greenhouse effect, since it is utilized primarily in greenhouses.
thermodynamics_engrzThe greenhouse effect is also experienced on a larger scale on earth. The surface of the earth, which warms up during the day as a result of the absorption of solar energy, cools down at night by radiating part of its energy into deep space as infrared radiation. Carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapor, and trace amounts of some other gases such as methane and nitrogen oxides act like a blanket and keep the earth warm at night by blocking the heat radiated from the earth (Fig. 2–66). Therefore, they are called “greenhouse gases,” with CO2 being the primary component. Water vapor is usually taken out of this list since it comes down as rain or snow as part of the water cycle and human activities in producing water (such as the burning of fossil fuels) do not make much difference on its concentration in the atmosphere (which is mostly due to evaporation from rivers, lakes, oceans, etc.).
CO2 is different, however, in that people’s activities do make a difference in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.
The greenhouse effect makes life on earth possible by keeping the earth warm (about 30°C warmer). However, excessive amounts of these gases disturb the delicate balance by trapping too much energy, which causes the average temperature of the earth to rise and the climate at some localities to change. These undesirable consequences of the greenhouse effect are referred to as global warming or global climate change.
The global climate change is due to the excessive use of fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum products, and natural gas in electric power generation, transportation, buildings, and manufacturing, and it has been a concern in recent decades. In 1995, a total of 6.5 billion tons of carbon was released to the atmosphere as CO2. The current concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 360 ppm (or 0.36 percent). This is 20 percent higher than the level a century ago, and it is projected to increase to over 700 ppm by the year 2100. Under normal conditions, vegetation consumes CO2 and releases O2 during the photosynthesis process, and thus keeps the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere in check. A mature, growing tree consumes about 12 kg of CO2 a year and exhales enough oxygen to support a family of four. However, deforestation and the huge increase in the CO2 production in recent decades disturbed this balance.
In a 1995 report, the world’s leading climate scientists concluded that the earth has already warmed about 0.5°C during the last century, and they estimate that the earth’s temperature will rise another 2°C by the year 2100. A rise of this magnitude is feared to cause severe changes in weather patterns with storms and heavy rains and flooding at some parts and drought in others, major floods due to the melting of ice at the poles, loss of wetlands and coastal areas due to rising sea levels, variations in water supply, changes in the ecosystem due to the inability of some animal and plant species to adjust to the changes, increases in epidemic diseases due to the warmer temperatures, and adverse side effects on human health and socioeconomic conditions in some areas.
The seriousness of these threats has moved the United Nations to establish a committee on climate change. A world summit in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, attracted world attention to the problem. The agreement prepared by the committee in 1992 to control greenhouse gas emissions was signed by 162 nations. In the 1997 meeting in Kyoto (Japan), the world’s industrialized countries adopted the Kyoto protocol and committed to reduce their CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent below the 1990 levels by 2008 to 2012. This can be done by increasing conservation efforts and improving conversion efficiencies, while meeting new energy demands by the use of renewable energy (such as hydroelectric, solar, wind, and geothermal energy) rather than by fossil fuels.
thermodynamics_engrzThe United States is the largest contributor of greenhouse gases, with over 5 tons of carbon emissions per person per year. A major source of greenhouse gas emissions is transportation. Each liter of gasoline burned by a vehicle produces about 2.5 kg of CO2 (or, each gallon of gasoline burned produces about 20 lbm of CO2). An average car in the United States is driven about 12,000 miles a year, and it consumes about 600 gallons of gasoline.
Therefore, a car emits about 12,000 lbm of CO2 to the atmosphere a year, which is about four times the weight of a typical car (Fig. 2–67). This and other emissions can be reduced significantly by buying an energy-efficient car that burns less fuel over the same distance, and by driving sensibly. Saving fuel also saves money and the environment. For example, choosing a vehicle that gets 30 rather than 20 miles per gallon will prevent 2 tons of CO2 from being released to the atmosphere every year while reducing the fuel cost by $400 per year (under average driving conditions of 12,000 miles a year and at a fuel cost of $2.00/gal).
It is clear from these discussions that considerable amounts of pollutants are emitted as the chemical energy in fossil fuels is converted to thermal, mechanical, or electrical energy via combustion, and thus power plants, motor vehicles, and even stoves take the blame for air pollution. In contrast, no pollution is emitted as electricity is converted to thermal, chemical, or mechanical energy, and thus electric cars are often touted as “zero emission” vehicles and their widespread use is seen by some as the ultimate
solution to the air pollution problem. It should be remembered, however, that the electricity used by the electric cars is generated somewhere else mostly by burning fuel and thus emitting pollution. Therefore, each time an electric car consumes 1 kWh of electricity, it bears the responsibility for the pollutions emitted as 1 kWh of electricity (plus the conversion and transmission losses) is generated elsewhere. The electric cars can be claimed to be zero emission vehicles only when the electricity they consume is generated by emission-free renewable resources such as hydroelectric, solar, wind, and geothermal energy (Fig. 2–68). thermodynamics_engrzTherefore, the use of renewable energy should be encouraged worldwide, with incentives, as necessary, to make the earth a better place to live in. The advancements in thermodynamics have contributed greatly in recent decades to improve conversion efficiencies (in some cases doubling them) and thus to reduce pollution. As individuals, we can also help by practicing energy conservation measures and by making energy efficiency a high priority in our purchases.

Reference: Thermodynamics – An Engineering Approach
5th Edition
by: Yunus A. Cengel and Michale A. Boles

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