Carbon 101 - Learn the Basics on CO2 Emissions
Though vilified in its connection to climate change, carbon dioxide is a natural, necessary component of life on Earth. We couldn't live without it. The problem we have with carbon dioxide (CO2) today is its over-abundance. Along with other greenhouse gases, too much CO2 traps too much of the sun's heat in our atmosphere. And the excessive warming of our world inevitably leads to some destruction that is to the detriment of our planet and its inhabitants.
Carbon dioxide is comprised of two oxygen atoms and one carbon atom. The Earth has a natural "carbon cycle" that has maintained the perfect balance of carbon dioxide in the air for 650,000 years - approximately 275 parts per million (ppm). We know this by analyzing the content of ice cores. Only in the last couple of hundred years - post-Industrial Revolution - has the CO2 content in our atmosphere exceeded the planet's normal range so significantly. Today the Earth's CO2 content is 392 ppm, and increasing an average of 2 parts per year.
Sources and Sinks of CO2
A variety of natural and human-created activities lead to the emission, or "source", of carbon dioxide. To keep a healthy amount of CO2 in our atmosphere, nature has devised "sinks" or natural ways the Earth absorbs or removes the CO2 that is emitted into the atmosphere. Having this balance of sources and sinks is what has kept the CO2 at 275 ppm for thousands of years - until now.
Natural - Through the natural carbon cycle:
- People and animals (source) convert oxygen into carbon dioxide, released through respiration.
- Plants (sinks) absorb the CO2 and release oxygen back into the air.
- Oceans both emit (source) and absorb (sink) carbon dioxide on the sea's surface.
- Volcanic eruptions (source) emit carbon dioxide that has been trapped deep within the Earth. Again, plants and oceans (sinks) are the only natural means of removing this CO2 from the atmosphere.
Human - Through human-created activities, carbon dioxide is emitted through:
- The burning of fossil fuels, including coal, oil and gas.
- Exhaust from motorized vehicles.
- Manufacturing, construction and mining processes.
- Deforestation (as the elimination of trees means fewer sinks to store CO2).
As a result, there is now an imbalance of sources and sinks, as humans are emitting more carbon dioxide than our earth can absorb.
Result of Too Much CO2
As referenced above, the more CO2 we emit on Earth, the more heat gets trapped in our atmosphere. Increasing global temperatures leads to:
- Melting of glaciers and ice floes, not only displacing marine life, but also causing a rise in sea level and flooding of coastal cities.
- Warming sea surface temperatures, which increases the strength of hurricanes.
- Damage to coral reefs and alpine meadows, which threatens the survival of species dependent on these eco-systems.
- Increase in pest and mosquito-born diseases that thrive in warmer temperatures.
What You Can Do About It
Scientists say the only way to preserve life on this planet as we know it today is to keep CO2 content in the atmosphere below 350 ppm. Allowing it to climb 2 ppm every year will inevitably lead to irreversible damage to the planet and its inhabitants. We can decrease carbon dioxide levels by:
- Switching from the burning of fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, like wind, solar and hydroelectric power.
- Conserving electricity, as the majority of our power in the US comes from the burning of coal.
- Capturing from power plants the CO2 that would otherwise enter the atmosphere, and instead injecting it deep below the Earth's surface.
- Choosing products that contain sustainable materials not dependent on industrial-intensive processes.
Learn more about the target goal of 350 ppm from 350.org.