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Global Warming and Climate Change

Note: EPA no longer updates this information, but it may be useful as a reference or resource.

Please see www.epa.gov/airtrends for the latest information on Air Quality Trends.

Nature and Sources:
The Earth's climate is fueled by the Sun. Most of the Sun's energy, called solar radiation, is absorbed by the Earth, but some is reflected back into space. A natural layer of atmospheric gases absorbs a portion of this reflected solar radiation, eventually releasing some of it into space, but forcing much of it back to Earth. There it warms the Earth's surface creating what is known as the natural "greenhouse effect," as illustrated in the diagram below.

The greenhouse effect is being accelerated by releases of certain gases to the atmosphere that are causing the Earth's temperature to rise.

Without the natural greenhouse effect, the Earth's average temperature would be much colder, and the planet would be covered with ice.

Recent scientific evidence shows that the greenhouse effect is being increased by release of certain gases to the atmosphere that cause the Earth's temperature to rise. This is called "global warming." Carbon dioxide (CO2) accounts for about 85 percent of greenhouse gases released in the U.S. CO2 emissions are largely due to the combustion of fossil fuels in electric power generation. Methane (CH4) emissions, which result from agricultural activities, landfills, and other sources, are the second largest contributor to greenhouse gases in the U.S.

Industrial applications such as foam production, refrigeration, dry cleaning, chemical manufacturing, and semiconductor manufacturing produce other greenhouse gas emissions such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Smelting of aluminum produces another greenhouse gas called perfluorinated compounds (PFCs). Emissions of NOx and VOC from automobile exhaust and industrial processes contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone or smog, also a greenhouse gas.

Health and Environmental Effects:
Greenhouse gas emissions could cause a 1.8 to 6.3° Fahrenheit rise in temperature during the next century, if atmospheric levels are not reduced. Although this change may appear small, it could produce extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods; threaten coastal resources and wetlands by raising sea level; and increase the risk of certain diseases by producing new breeding sites for pests and pathogens. Agricultural regions and woodlands are also susceptible to changes in climate that could result in increased insect populations and plant disease. This degradation of natural ecosystems could lead to reduced biological diversity.

International Developments:
Over 150 world leaders have responded to the early warnings of climate change. In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed, and in 1992, these 150 countries signed a treaty known as the "Framework Convention on Climate Change" (FCCC) to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gases. Early indications suggest that most countries are not on track to meet the year 2000 target for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, and further, that holding emissions at 1990 levels will not prevent or solve the problem. In 1997, the FCCC will meet in Japan, where agreement may be reached on a legally binding international pact to prevent or reduce the risk of climate change.

U.S. Programs to Mitigate Climate Change:
The United States adopted a Climate Change Action Plan in 1993 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Hundreds of companies and nonprofit organizations are working together to effectively reduce their emissions. The Plan involves 50 programs implemented by EPA, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, and other Government agencies. EPA's voluntary pollution prevention programs seek to prevent greenhouse gas emissions through partnerships with business, government, and other groups by stimulating investments in energy-efficient technology and practices. Combined, EPA's voluntary pollution prevention programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have over 2,000 partners. Since 1992, participants in these programs have prevented the release of over 2.5 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

EPA's voluntary pollution prevention programs are reducing greenhouse gas emissions through partnerships with industry and others.
EPA Voluntary Programs to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions Objective
Green Lights / Energy Star Buildings Program Energy-efficient lighting, heating, air conditioning, and ventilation systems
Energy Star Programs Commercial and residential energy-efficient products and effective product labeling
Natural Gas Star, AgStar, and Landfill Methane Outreach Programs Cost-effective reduction of methane emissions
Voluntary Aluminum Industrial Partnership Reduction of perfluorinated compound emissions
Climate Wise Program Company-specific emissions reduction plans

This document is provided for historical purposes only. The most recent version can be found at AIRTrends

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