Our objective in this chapter is to treat the computation of a planet's energy loss by infrared emission in sufficient detail that the energy loss can be quantitatively linked to the actual concentration of specific greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Unlike the simple model of the greenhouse effect described in the preceding chapter, the infrared radiation in a real atmosphere does not all come from a single level; rather, a bit of emission is contributed from each level (each having its own temperature), and a bit of this is absorbed at each intervening level of the atmosphere. The radiation comes out in all directions, and the rate of emission and absorption is strongly dependent on frequency. Dealing with all these complexities may seem daunting, but in fact it can all be boiled down to a conceptually simple set of equations which suffice for a vast range of problems in planetary climate.
It was shown in Chapter 3 that there is almost invariably an order of magnitude separation in wavelengths between the shortwave spectrum at which a planet receives stellar radiation and the longwave (generally infrared) spectrum at which energy is radiated to space. This is true throughout the Solar System, for cold bodies like Titan and hot bodies like Venus, as well as for bodies like Earth that are habitable for creatures like ourselves. The separation calls for distinct sets of approximations in dealing with the two kinds of radiation.