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The Greenhouse Effect

How does the greenhouse effect work and how have humans changed it?

Industrial-scale factory in Sierra Leone.
Increases human-made greenhouse effect: emissions from industrial-scale factories. © Welthungerhilfe
Michael Kühn Team Policy and External Relations

Without the natural greenhouse effect there would be no life on earth: It stores heat and prevents the planet from freezing. The average temperature would not be the present +15 degrees Celsius, but would lie at around -18°C. 

The greenhouse effect results from the greenhouse gases

Our lifestyle use energy

We need a lot of energy for our modern lifestyles. This is mostly produced by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. Through this, CO2 is released - in Germany alone approximately 3 kilogrammes per person per day (the per capita emissions in Germany in 2013 equated to approximately 11.5 tons of CO2.) Source: German Federal Environment Office.

Our atmosphere functions similarly to a greenhouse:

Greenhouse gases surround the earth like a protective membrane. This layer lets through most of the short-wave radiation which comes from the sun. The long-wave radiation, which returns from the earth's surface, is partially stopped. These gases work in a similar way to the glass roof of a greenhouse: They let the sunlight through, but partially hold back the warmth radiated from the earth's surface; Earth and air thus continue to heat up.

The climate balance: Changed by humans

An increasing concentration of greenhouse gases due to human activity means that the greenhouse effect changes and the temperature of the earth rises – this is referred to as human-made climate change. It is a fact that over the course of the millennia, there have been recurrent fluctuations in the global average temperature of one to two degrees. Since the industrial revolution, temperatures have risen exceptionally rapidly.

How humans are adding to the greenhouse effect:

Through our economies, for example by the burning of fossil fuels for energy production and in traffic we release large quantities of CO2, as well as through mass livestock farming, intensive agriculture and growing rubbish mountains, more methane is released into our air - much more than can be absorbed by plants, oceans and rocks. These additional gases increase the warming and we are speaking of the anthropogenic, i.e. human-made, greenhouse effect.  

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How humans are adding to the greenhouse effect:

Through our economies, for example by the burning of fossil fuels for energy production and in traffic we release large quantities of CO2, as well as through mass livestock farming, intensive agriculture and growing rubbish mountains, more methane is released into our air - much more than can be absorbed by plants, oceans and rocks. These additional gases increase the warming and we are speaking of the anthropogenic, i.e. human-made, greenhouse effect.  

Carbon dioxide as a major cause for climate change

As a consequence of our modern lifestyle, more and more greenhouse gases are emitting. The growth giant China is currently considered to be the biggest emitter of CO2 emission fossil fuels and has replaced the USA. Greenhouse emissions are primarily caused by the energy business, electricity and heat generation, refineries and the production of solid fuels. In 2012, they caused 47 percent of greenhouse emissions. (Source: International Energy Agency, IEA)

Destruction of natural CO₂ storage is further fueling the greenhouse effect 

Clearing and burning of forests, intensive agriculture and the use of pesticides, the cutting of peat and the pollution of oceans and rivers also releases CO₂. Soil, oceans and plants are natural CO₂ stores: Changing or destroying them has direct consequences on the greenhouse effect and our climate.

2, 3 or even 4 degrees of warming? 

Even back in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assumed that the worldwide temperature would only warm up by two to four degrees by 2100. Today, climate experts judge the situation to be more dangerous: Due to increasing energy consumption, the global CO2 output is rising faster than ever before.

Info graphic cover: Global Warming by 2100 Paris Climate summit 2015

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Climate change and its consequences: What happens, if we continue as before?

The global rise in temperature has effects on the environment and on the lives of people. Heatwaves, storms, floods and droughts occur more frequently. Climate change change is already having an effect, in that the ice masses at the South and North Poles are melting and the sea level rising. With the expected temperature increases of two to six degrees, the sea level will rise by at least one metre by 2100. And as a result of climate change, eco-systems will change or break down entirely.

The energy hunger of humans has serious consequences.

The resulting problems, such as lack of drinking water, serious crop failures and desertification do not often affect the actual perpetrators of climate change in industrial nations, but the inhabitants of developing countries. The employees of Welthungerhilfe and our local partners have to deal with these challenges every day. 

Last Update 26.03.2018

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