The World is in Our Hands

morena sanidadBy Morena Sanidad, P.E., LEED AP

We have all heard the term “global warming”, and that the earth is getting warmer caused by the greenhouse effect. Do we really know what this means? Is it really a problem? Can we do anything to help mitigate the effects of global warming?

The answer to all three questions is, “Yes.” The last question resonates closely in our industry. The built environment, the systems that sustain it, and the people that utilize it have a major impact on global warming. Builders, engineers, architects, building owners, and individuals are all in a position to be part of the solution. Together we can make a difference, for the world is in our hands.

First off, what is a greenhouse gas?

Greenhouse gasses (also known as GHG) are gasses in the earth’s atmosphere that emit and absorb energy. The five major greenhouse gasses are carbon dioxide, ozone, nitrous oxide, ozone, and water vapor.

To better understand, let’s look at the basic composition of the earth’s atmosphere. Near the surface, the atmosphere is composed primarily of nitrogen and oxygen. Together, the two comprise about 99% of the atmosphere. The remaining 1% includes 0.9% argon and 0.1% trace gasses.

The trace gases include carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, neon, hydrogen, helium, methane, and ozone. We also find water vapor (hydrogen and oxygen) in a variable amount, typically between 1-4% of the atmosphere depending on where you are and what time of the day it is.

Greenhouse gases have chemical and physical properties that interact with solar radiation and infrared energy, affecting the energy balance of our planet. Although they are less than a tenth of a percent of our atmosphere, they can strongly affect the global energy balance and temperature of our planet over time. That is why scientists are watching the increasing amount of the greenhouse gases closely and carefully!

What is the Greenhouse Effect?

The sun naturally gives off radiation, mostly in the form visible light, infrared, and UV radiation. It radiates energy to the earth’s surface, warming it up. The land and water absorb most of this energy, and the rest is reflected back into the atmosphere. The earth also gives off energy in the form of infrared radiation.

This energy travels back towards space, but some is trapped by the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, keeping the earth warm and livable. This natural phenomenon is what we call the greenhouse effect.

The term “greenhouse effect” comes from the definition of a greenhouse. A greenhouse is a glass building in which plants that need protection from the cold weather are grown. The glass allows sunlight to enter, but traps the heat energy inside, so the building stays warm even when it’s cold outside.

The greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere surrounding our planet act like the glass, allowing sunlight to come through but trapping the heat below, keeping the earth warm.

We need some greenhouse gasses. Without them the earth would be too cold for humans, plants, and animals to live. However, too much greenhouse gas and the earth will become too hot to be livable.

Cause and Effect of Too Much Greenhouse Gas

People are adding extra greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2). Whenever we drive a car, use electricity, or make a product in a factory, we use energy. In the United States, most of the energy we use is generated by power plants that use fossil fuels such as coals, natural gas, and oil, all of which produce large amounts of CO2 that gets released into the atmosphere.

Our buildings account for 38% of all CO2 emissions, and 73% of electricity consumption.

The increased amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is upsetting the earth’s natural balance and warming our planet. Warmer temperatures lead to the effects of changing rain and snow patterns, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, drought, and much more. Yes, we should worry about global warming!

What Can We Do?

There are many ways we can help reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses we produce. As individuals, we can:

  • Take public transportation, ride bikes to work, walk to the store.
  • Conserve energy at home and at work at all times.
  • Use renewable power sources such as solar panels, wind and water generated energy, etc. Check your local power company for the green energy alternatives that they offer.

In recent years, the building and construction industry has seen a paradigm shift in the way that buildings are designed and constructed. Builders, design professionals, and building owners build with greater energy efficiency and sustainability in mind. Building codes have been updated to include energy efficient measures, and building rating systems like LEED of the USGBC, Living Building Challenge, Green Globes, have provided guidelines and incentives for pushing the “green” movement along. By 2015, an estimated 40-48% of new nonresidential construction by value will be green2, and green buildings by design consume less energy, and emit less greenhouse gas. We’re moving in the right direction.

The evidence is clear; the vast majority of scientists agree that the planet is warming because of the increased greenhouse gas layer in the atmosphere, through a process called greenhouse effect, and that human activities are largely responsible for the increased amount of greenhouse gasses. The good news is it’s not too late! Together we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and help stop global warming. After all, the world is in our hands.

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