There’s a new greenhouse gas on Earth, and it's the worst one yet.

Photo by kaysha | flickr.com

Photo by kaysha | flickr.com

When we talk about the ability of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to warm the Earth’s climate, we often categorize these substances by their ‘effectiveness’, or the warming potential of one molecule of one compound.  (Explaining why a ‘good’ GHG is actually ‘bad’ for our planet).  We all know that the quantity of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is concerning (over 400 parts per million), but other GHGs are actually more effective than CO2.  Methane, for instance, is anywhere from 20 to 30 times more effective a GHG than carbon dioxide (though this figure is highly debatable), explaining why release of methane from northern permafrost melt as the result of a warming climate is such a high priority concern. 

Would you be scared, then, if I told you that there is a greenhouse gas 7,000 times more effective than carbon dioxide?

Researchers at the University of Toronto have recently discovered a GHG called perfluorotributylamine, or PFTBA, originally used in electrical equipment, considered the ‘worst’ greenhouse gas known to date (by actually being the ‘best’ greenhouse gas), with a atmospheric resonance time of 500 years, thanks to the large number of carbon-fluorine bonds that all ow for a long lifetime in the air.  It was detected in every sample collected analyzed by the research group from the City of Toronto, rendering it an environmentally ubiquitous atmospheric substance – at least within the Toronto region.

That being said, the quantities of PFTBA detected were only trace amounts - a mere 0.18 parts per trillion.  Compare this to current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, hovering around 400 parts per million. It is clear that the concentration of PFTBA is much lower than some of the more recognized GHGs; however, with a warming power 7,000 times that of CO2, we need to keep an eye on PFTBA and ‘newer’ GHGs with similar chemical properties. 

One of the study’s contributors, Angela Hong, acknowledges the necessity of establishing a connection between the scientific discovery of new GHGs and other environmentally damaging compounds, such as PFTBA and the subsequent development of policies intended to mitigate environmental harm through regulatory action.  Fundamental studies such as this one highlight the importance of establishing connections between science and policy, as change (particularly in this scenario) is dependent on both a scientific understanding of the role of PFTBA in the environment as well as implementation of adequate management practices for minimizing or eliminating the impact of PFTBA on the climate.  There could be some good news here: many companies do not use PFTBA today, so a phase-out or reduction in use may not be difficult, especially if chemical substitutes already exist.