What is Global Warming Potential (GWP)? | Carbon 101

Understand what Global Warming Potential (GWP) is, the measure essential for grasping the impact of greenhouse gases and guiding climate action strategies.
Updated on
March 22, 2024
What is Global Warming Potential (GWP)? | Carbon 101
Table of Contents

Global Warming Potential (GWP) is a critical concept in understanding the impact of greenhouse gases on our planet's climate. This term, often used in discussions about climate change and sustainability, provides a way to compare the ability of different greenhouse gases to trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere. In essence, it measures the total energy that a gas will absorb over a particular period of time, compared to carbon dioxide (CO2).

The GWP of a gas is a relative measure, with CO2 being the reference gas with a GWP of 1. This means that a gas with a GWP of 20 is 20 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2 over the same time period. Understanding the GWP of different gases is crucial for developing effective strategies to combat climate change.

Understanding the Concept of Global Warming Potential

The concept of Global Warming Potential was developed to compare the ability of each greenhouse gas to trap heat in the atmosphere relative to another gas. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines GWP as the cumulative radiative forcing - both direct and indirect effects - that a unit mass of a gas would add to the atmosphere over a specified time period.

The time period usually used for GWP calculations is 100 years. However, the IPCC also provides GWP values for 20 and 500-year time horizons. The choice of time horizon depends on the particular application - for example, a shorter time horizon might be more appropriate for gases that are quickly removed from the atmosphere.

Calculating Global Warming Potential

Calculating the GWP of gas involves integrating the radiative forcing due to a pulse emission of that gas over a chosen time horizon relative to that of CO2. The radiative forcing of a gas is determined by its absorption of infrared radiation, the spectral location of its absorbing wavelengths, and its atmospheric lifetime.

The atmospheric lifetime of a gas is the average time it stays in the atmosphere before natural processes remove it. Gases with longer lifetimes have a greater GWP because they remain in the atmosphere, trapping heat, for a longer period of time.

Limitations of Global Warming Potential

While GWP is a useful measure, it has some limitations. It does not take into account the spatial distribution of the gases in the atmosphere, which can affect their warming impact. Also, it does not consider the indirect effects of gases, such as their impact on ozone levels or cloud formation.

Furthermore, the choice of time horizon can greatly affect the GWP of a gas. A gas that is quickly removed from the atmosphere will have a high GWP over a short time horizon but a low GWP over a long time horizon. This can make comparisons between gases difficult.

Examples of Global Warming Potential

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the reference gas for GWP calculations, with a GWP of 1. However, other greenhouse gases have much higher GWPs. For example, methane (CH4) has a GWP of 28-36 over 100 years, while nitrous oxide (N2O) has a GWP of 265-298 over the same time period.

Some industrial gases have extremely high GWPs. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) have GWPs in the thousands or tens of thousands. These gases are less common than CO2, CH4, and N2O, but their high GWPs mean they can still significantly impact global warming.

Methane and Global Warming Potential

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with a GWP much higher than that of CO2. It is released during the production and transport of coal, oil, and natural gas, as well as by livestock and other agricultural practices and by the decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills.

Despite its high GWP, methane's lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than that of CO2, so its effect on long-term warming is not as strong. However, because methane is more effective at trapping radiation, its impact on warming is more significant in the short term.

Nitrous Oxide and Global Warming Potential

Nitrous oxide is a powerful greenhouse gas with a GWP almost 300 times that of CO2. It is released from agricultural and industrial activities, during the combustion of fossil fuels and biomass, and during wastewater treatment.

Like methane, nitrous oxide's lifetime in the atmosphere is shorter than that of CO2, but its warming impact is much stronger in the short term due to its high GWP. Therefore, efforts to reduce nitrous oxide emissions can significantly impact short-term warming.

Global Warming Potential and Carbon Footprint

The concept of GWP is central to the calculation of carbon footprints. A carbon footprint measures the total greenhouse gas emissions caused directly and indirectly by an individual, organization, event, or product. It is usually expressed as a CO2 equivalent (CO2e), which allows for the different GWPs of different gases to be taken into account.

By using the GWP of each gas, emissions can be converted into a common unit (CO2e), allowing for a comprehensive assessment of total greenhouse gas emissions. This makes it possible to compare the emissions from different sources and develop strategies to reduce overall emissions.

Calculating Carbon Footprint

Calculating a carbon footprint involves identifying the sources of greenhouse gas emissions, quantifying the emissions from each source, and then converting these emissions into CO2e using the GWP of each gas. This process can be complex, requiring detailed data on energy use, waste production, and other activities.

There are many tools and calculators available to help individuals and organizations calculate their carbon footprints. These tools typically use emission factors, which are values that estimate the amount of greenhouse gases emitted per unit of activity, such as the amount of CO2 emitted per kilowatt-hour of electricity used.

Reducing Carbon Footprint

Understanding the GWP of different gases and their contribution to a carbon footprint can help identify opportunities for reducing emissions. For example, reducing methane emissions can have a significant impact on a carbon footprint due to its high GWP.

Strategies for reducing a carbon footprint can include energy efficiency improvements, switching to renewable energy sources, reducing waste, and offsetting emissions. By focusing on the activities that contribute most to their carbon footprint, individuals and organizations can make the most effective use of their resources to reduce their impact on the climate.

Global Warming Potential and Climate Policy

The concept of GWP plays a key role in climate policy. It is used in the Kyoto Protocol and other international agreements to quantify and compare the emissions of different greenhouse gases. This allows for the development of emission reduction targets and the tracking of progress towards these targets.

GWP enables policymakers to make informed decisions about where to focus efforts to reduce emissions by providing a common measure for comparing the warming impact of different gases. It also allows for developing market-based mechanisms for reducing emissions, such as carbon trading.

International Agreements and GWP

The Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that commits its Parties to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, uses GWP values from the IPCC to compare emissions of different gases. The Protocol sets binding targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by developed countries, and these targets are expressed in terms of CO2e, using the GWP of each gas.

More recently, the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, also uses GWP to compare emissions of different gases. The Agreement requires all Parties to regularly report on their emissions and efforts to reduce them, using a common transparency framework.

Carbon Trading and GWP

Carbon trading, also known as emissions trading, is a market-based approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It involves setting a cap on total emissions and issuing tradable permits or allowances representing the right to emit a certain amount of greenhouse gases. The total number of allowances is equal to the cap, and this decreases over time to reduce total emissions.

Under a carbon trading system, the GWP of each gas is used to determine the number of allowances required for each emission unit. This allows for trading emissions of different gases, providing an economic incentive for reducing emissions. By putting a price on carbon, carbon trading encourages the reduction of the most cost-effective emissions first.


Global Warming Potential is crucial in understanding the impact of different greenhouse gases on our planet's climate. By providing a measure of the total energy that a gas will absorb over a particular period of time, compared to CO2, it allows for the comparison of the warming impact of different gases.

While GWP has some limitations, it is a valuable tool for calculating carbon footprints, informing climate policy, and driving efforts to reduce emissions. By understanding the GWP of different gases, we can make informed decisions about how to combat climate change most effectively.

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What is Global Warming Potential (GWP)? | Carbon 101