What do your car and your steak have in common?

NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies published the results of a study into the earth’s climate on February 18, analysing the impact of different industry sectors on it.

They have discovered and described certain airborne chemicals that can trap incoming sunlight and warm the climate, while others cool the planet by blocking the Sun’s rays.

The greatest contributor to atmospheric warming, now and in the near term? Motor vehicles. Cars, buses, and trucks release pollutants and greenhouse gases that promote warming, while emitting few aerosols that counteract it.

The graph below shows the net impact of each of the various industry sectors, ordered in terms of the most warming effect to the environment. Whilst the burning of biofuels (primarily animal dung and wood for home heating and cooking) and animal husbandry (particularly methane-producing cattle) are also significant contributors, the amounts of carbon dioxide, black carbon, and ozone emitted by the on-road transportation sector far outstrips the industrial sector – which releases many of the same gases, but also tends to emit sulfates and other aerosols that cause cooling by reflecting light and altering clouds.

Click on the image to see in full scale.

TreeHugger’s analysis of the data makes some great points – that whist the creation of ‘green’ cars – running on clean electricity – is well underway, both conceptually and in the public imagination – this really is only a small part of the solution. Getting out of our dependence on automobiles altogether would be a far greater step forward – but to achieve this would require a shift towards creating communities and spaces where the vast majority of people would not need a car – by building better cities.

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