Global warming potential

Global warming potential (GWP) is a measure of how much heat a greenhouse gas traps in the atmosphere up to a specific time horizon, relative to carbon dioxide. It compares the amount of heat trapped by a certain mass of the gas in question to the amount of heat trapped by a similar mass of carbon dioxide and is expressed as a factor of carbon dioxide (whose GWP is standardized to 1). A GWP is calculated over a specific time horizon, commonly 20, 100, or 500 years. User related choices such as the time horizon can greatly affect the numerical values obtained for carbon dioxide equivalents. In the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, methane has a lifetime of 12.4 years and with climate-carbon feedbacks a global warming potential of 86 over 20 years and 34 over 100 years in response to emissions. For a change in time horizon from 20 to 100 years, the GWP for methane therefore decreases by a factor of approximately 2.5. The GWP depends on the following factors: the absorption of infrared radiation by a given species the spectral location of its absorbing wavelengths the atmospheric lifetime of the species Thus, a high GWP correlates with a large infrared absorption and a long atmospheric lifetime. The dependence of GWP on the wavelength of absorption is more complicated. Even if a gas absorbs radiation efficiently at a certain wavelength, this may not affect its GWP much if the atmosphere already absorbs most radiation at that wavelength. A gas has the most effect if it absorbs in a "window" of wavelengths where the atmosphere is fairly transparent. The dependence of GWP as a function of wavelength has been found empirically and published as a graph. Because the GWP of a greenhouse gas depends directly on its infrared spectrum, the use of infrared spectroscopy to study greenhouse gases is centrally important in the effort to understand the impact of human activities on global climate change. The substances subject to restrictions under the Kyoto protocol are either rapidly increasing their concentrations in Earth's atmosphere or have a large GWP.


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