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Carbon: The most deadly of all greenhouse gases?

Why is Whitehall obsessed by carbon when formulating its green policies? Mark Northcott argues that other greenhouse gases also need to be taken into account
Carbon: The most deadly of all greenhouse gases?
Carbon budgets, Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme, targets to reduce carbon - why has the Government set all of its 'green' policies by carbon number?

It's a question I put to Andrew Stunell MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, during his recent visit to see the energy saving benefits of our super condensing Quinta Eco Plus passive flue gas heat recovery heating system. His answer was that 'carbon' is a simpler way of referring to greenhouse gases.

The term 'greenhouse gases' refers to a group of gases that absorb and emit infrared radiation which leads to global warming. These gases are water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone. The greenhouse effect is a culmination of these gases, not caused by carbon dioxide alone. So is not this use of carbon as a blanket term for all greenhouse gases slightly misleading?

Carbon dioxide has good points
Carbon dioxide is the starting ingredient in photosynthesis, which of course is essential for all of the flora and fauna in the world. It is also relatively inert, and non-toxic to humans, demonstrated by the fact that you are breathing it in now. In high concentrations, it is only dangerous in that it prevents you taking in enough oxygen. As the second most prevalent greenhouse gas, it does contribute to climate warming, and it is important not to forget this. However, it is not the sole cause.

As manufacturers of heating products, we at Remeha Commercial also focus on reducing the emissions of a far more deadly gas or group of gases: NOx.

Nitrogen oxides, or NOx, is the generic term for a group of highly reactive gases which contain nitrogen and oxygen in varying amounts. NOx is created when nitrogen atoms are released at a high temperature into the air, combining with oxygen. NOx forms most commonly when fuel is burned at high temperatures during combustion (although it can form naturally when lightning superheats the air during a strike), which is why this group of gases should be of particular concern to heating manufacturers.

The impact of NOx on the environment is huge. The global warming potential (GWP) of a molecule is calculated by its efficiency as a greenhouse gas and its atmospheric lifetime. GWP is measured relative to the same mass of carbon dioxide which has a GWP of 1 over all time periods.

NOx's global warming impact
According to the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), nitrious oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas that can break down into NOx, is considered to have 298 times more impact than carbon in causing global warming over a 20-year period. It accumulates in the atmosphere with other greenhouse gases causing a gradual rise in the earth's temperature, and consequently a rise in the sea level and adverse changes to plant and animal habitat.

NOx causes smog or ground level ozone at low level and acid rain when it combines with sulphur. At higher altitudes, it can actually destroy the ozone in the troposphere, which is contributing to the expansion of the holes in the ozone layer.

NOx also brings risks to human health including detrimental effects on breathing and the respiratory system, damage to lung tissue, and even premature death.

With NOx causing so much harm to the planet along with CO2, let's have a shift of focus from just carbon back to all greenhouse gases and perhaps, in the heating sector, especially NOx. Manufacturers of commercial heating plant need to continue to innovate to produce greener, cleaner, smarter and more efficient heating products that will reduce to ultra-low levels ALL harmful greenhouse gases emissions. Only then can we effectively address climate change and help sustain the world for future generations.

// The author is managing director of Remeha Commercial //
18 June 2012


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