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What Are Greenhouse Gases?

Some greenhouse gases occur naturally in the atmosphere, while others result from human activities.

Naturally occurring greenhouse gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Human activities, however, add to the levels of most of these naturally occurring gases:

Carbon dioxide is released to the atmosphere when solid waste, fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal), and wood and wood products are burned.

Methane is emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil. Methane emissions also result from the decomposition of organic wastes in municipal solid waste landfills; and the raising of livestock.

Nitrous oxide is emitted during agricultural and industrial activities as well as during combustion of solid waste and fossil fuels.

Greenhouse gases that are not naturally occurring include byproducts of foam production, refrigeration, and air conditioning called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), as well as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs) generated by industrial processes.

Each greenhouse gas differs in its ability to absorb heat in the atmosphere. HFCs and PFCs are the most heat absorbent. Methane traps over 20 times more heat than carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide absorbs 270 times more heat than carbon dioxide.

For more information, go to EPA's Climate Change & Waste Web Site.

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