The greenhouse effect is the process by which absorption and emission of infrared radiation by gases in the atmosphere are purported to warm a planet's lower atmosphere and surface. It was proposed by Joseph Fourier in 1824 and was first investigated quantitatively by Svante Arrhenius in 1896. The question in terms of global warming is how the strength of the presumed greenhouse effect changes when human activity increases the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Naturally occurring greenhouse gases have a mean warming effect of about 33 °C (59 °F). The major greenhouse gases are water vapor, which causes about 36–70 percent of the greenhouse effect; carbon dioxide (CO2), which causes 9–26 percent; methane (CH4), which causes 4–9 percent; and ozone (O3), which causes 3–7 percent. Clouds also affect the radiation balance, but they are composed of liquid water or ice and so have different effects on radiation from water vapor.
Human activity since the Industrial Revolution has increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, leading to increased radiative forcing from CO2, methane, tropospheric ozone, CFCs and nitrous oxide. The concentrations of CO2and methane have increased by 36% and 148% respectively since 1750. These levels are much higher than at any time during the last 650,000 years, the period for which reliable data has been extracted from ice cores. Less direct geological evidence indicates that CO2 values higher than this were last seen about 20 million years ago. Fossil fuel burning has produced about three-quarters of the increase in CO2 from human activity over the past 20 years. Most of the rest is due to land-use change, particularly deforestation.
CO2 emissions are continuing to rise due to the burning of fossil fuels and land-use change. Estimates of changes in future emission levels of greenhouse gases have been made, and are called "emissions scenarios." The future level of emissions will depend on uncertain economic, sociological, technological, and natural developments. In most scenarios, emissions continue to rise over the century, while in a few, emissions are reduced. These emission scenarios, combined with carbon cycle modeling, have been used to produce estimates of how atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will change in the future. Using the six IPCC SRES "marker" scenarios, models suggest that by the year 2100, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 could range between 541 and 970 ppm. This is an increase of 90-250% above the concentration in the year 1750. Fossil fuel reserves are sufficient to reach these levels and continue emissions past 2100 if coal, tar sands or methane clathrates are extensively exploited.
The destruction of stratospheric ozone by chlorofluorocarbons is sometimes mentioned in relation to global warming. Although there are a few areas of linkage, the relationship between the two is not strong. Reduction of stratospheric ozone has a cooling influence, but substantial ozone depletion did not occur until the late 1970s. Ozone in the troposphere (the lowest part of the Earth's atmosphere) does contribute to surface warming.