Greenhouse Gasses: Carbon Dioxide (CO2)

Why are we hearing about carbon dioxide so much?

In May of 2019, the measured carbon dioxide concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere was 415ppm. This is higher than any time during the existence of humanity.

Carbon dioxide is one of many Greenhouse Gasses (GHGs) which help regulate the Earth’s temperature. Sunlight comes into the atmosphere and is either absorbed or reflected by the Earth (see albedo effect). Without the GHGs, all that reflected energy would leak back into space, leaving the Earth much colder. Carbon dioxide, along with the other GHGs, actually traps some of this energy from escaping, protecting us from the cold of space. So, yay for CO2!!!

carbon dioxide greenhouse gas Earth

Due to human activities (burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and other activities related to agriculture, transportation, production, and general human over-consumption) carbon dioxide levels have been rising quickly, faster than the Earth’s natural processes can reclaim it. In the last 300 years, carbon dioxide levels have risen from around 278ppm to the current 413ppm, a huge increase!!!

The higher carbon dioxide levels (along with increased levels of other GHGs) mean more of the Sun’s heat is getting trapped in our atmosphere. This warms all parts of the planet- air, land, water. Some of the scary effects of this warming are:

  • Melting glaciers and polar ice caps
  • Rising sea levels and ocean acidification
  • Increasing extreme weather events
  • Shifting ecosystems (plants and animals moving to find more hospitable environments)

The Earth has processes to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to keep it cool… but this takes millions of years. The amount currently in the atmosphere far exceeds the natural balance that has been in place since well before humans showed up.

We made the problem; we have to fix it. There is no other option.

There is hope

We know exactly what we need to do: stop emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and find ways to remove the excess. There are countries, right now, who are making the necessary adjustments to address Climate Change. More countries are in the process and trying to figure out how it will work in their part of the globe. AND we have smart people looking into additional solutions. We can do this!

  • Iceland meets almost 100% of their energy needs with renewable energy, primarily geothermal energy. This won’t work everywhere, but it is a great example of using what is available regionally.
  • This year, the UK ran for an entire week without using energy from coal fire. A week may only be a small start, but this feels greatly symbolic to me. Remember: the UK is the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution!
  • We may not have mass scale solutions (yet) but we have some good ideas for CO2 removal. Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is an important component to fighting global warning.

Take action

There are many articles outlining what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint (which includes carbon dioxide emissions). Forbes, The Guardian, and Columbia University are just a few resources that can give you tips.

Educate yourself about Climate Change. 
I found two incredible online courses (both free)- Climate Change: The Science, and the follow-up Climate Change: Solutions. The format delivers information in small, digestible chunks. Lessons are delivered using video, articles, assignments, and discussion. I recommend both highly. There is a massive wealth of knowledge out there. So more recommendations, see Educate yourself on Climate Change
Talk to people about Climate Change. 
You don't need to be an expert or have all the answers to start talking about Climate Change. So, first watch this video from the Nature Conservancy. If you are moved to action, you can take their pledge to talk about Climate Change (I did). They will also send you a short but helpful PDF with 4 tips on how to have these conversations.  
Do a home energy audit. You can reduce your carbon footprint by turning off unused lights, purchasing energy efficient appliances, or replacing old windows. Find out more from the Department of Energy Home Energy Audits page. 
Eat less meat. You don't have to be completely meat and dairy free to be able to reduce your carbon footprint. Cutting your Foodprint can be more efficient at cutting down CO2 emissions than reducing your driving. 
Avoid air travel when possible.  The impact of air travel on climate change is huge. If you must fly, or buy carbon offsets. There are some listed here. I chose this one for myself (full disclosure: I haven't made any purchases, yet!)
Cut down on driving. Whenever possible, ride public transportation and bicycles, and walk. If possible, work from home or move closer to work. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions has a helpful Guide for Reducing your Transportation Footprint.