You Asked: If CO2 Is Only 0.04% of the Atmosphere, How Does it Drive Global Warming?

Short answer: A little bit goes a long way.

Renee Cho
July 30, 2019

Got a burning question about climate change? Feeling curious about conservation? “You Asked” is a series where Earth Institute experts tackle reader questions on science and sustainability. To submit a question, drop a comment below, message us on Instagram, or email us here.

A reader named Paul submitted this question on one of our previous posts:

Why does CO2 drive global warming when there is only 0.04% of it in the atmosphere? And why isn’t water vapor the major driving factor?

Yochanan Kushnir
Yochanan Kushnir is a research professor at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, in the Division of Oceans and Climate Physics

Answer provided by Yochanan Kushnir

Earth absorbs energy from sunlight, but as the surface warms, it also emits energy in the form of infrared radiation (which we know of as heat) out into space. Water vapor and CO2, however, act like a cap, making it more difficult for Earth to get rid of this energy. Without gases like these to absorb the energy, our planet’s average surface temperature would have been near zero degrees Fahrenheit.

About 99 percent of the atmosphere is made of oxygen and nitrogen, which cannot absorb the infrared radiation the Earth emits. Of the remaining 1 percent, the main molecules that can absorb infrared radiation are CO2 and water vapor, because their atoms are able to vibrate in just the right way to absorb the energy that the Earth gives off. After these gases absorb the energy, they emit half of it back to Earth and half of it into space, trapping some of the heat within the atmosphere. This trapping of heat is what we call the greenhouse effect. Because of the greenhouse effect created by these trace gases, the average temperature of the Earth is around 15˚C, or 59˚F, which allows for life to exist.

CO2 makes up only about 0.04% of the atmosphere, and water vapor can vary from 0 to 4%. But while water vapor is the dominant greenhouse gas in our atmosphere, it has “windows” that allow some of the infrared energy to escape without being absorbed. In addition, water vapor is concentrated lower in the atmosphere, whereas CO2 mixes well all the way to about 50 kilometers up. The higher the greenhouse gas, the more effective it is at trapping heat from the Earth’s surface.

The burning of fossil fuels affects the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Before the industrial revolution, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 288 ppm. We have now reached about 414 ppm, so we are on the way to doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by the end of this century. Scientists say that if CO2 doubles, it could raise the average global temperature of the Earth between two and five degrees Celsius. We are already increasing the amount of energy that bounces back to the Earth. Because of the greenhouse effect, this is causing global warming with its many destructive impacts.

Both water vapor and CO2 are responsible for global warming, and once we increase the CO2 in the atmosphere, the oceans warm up, which inevitably triggers an increase in water vapor. But while we have no way to control water vapor, we can control CO2. And because we are increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by continuing to burn fossil fuels, even in relatively small amounts compared to the entire mass of the atmosphere, we are disturbing the entire heat balance of the planet.

For more information on how carbon dioxide traps heat, why water vapor isn’t the culprit, and answers to several other interesting questions, check out this post: How Exactly Does Carbon Dioxide Cause Global Warming?