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What’s All This Fuss About CO2?

If there are any two words in the news that are more frequently repeated — and most often misunderstood — they have to be “carbon dioxide,” more commonly referred to as CO².

Is it merely ecological lingo or really as dangerous as they say? The answer to both is an astounding, YES!

Let’s start with the basics--the very basics--of what carbon emissions are and why they’re bad? According to the EPA — that’s the Environmental Protection Agency — carbon emissions are the byproducts of burning fossil fuels, such as coal, natural gas and oil, along with solid waste and trees. Well, that’s simple, right?

In 2019, due to human activities, CO² emissions made up about 80% of all of the greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. While carbon dioxide does occur naturally, humans continue to add more than can be removed naturally. CO² emissions aren’t new--humans have been putting CO² into the atmosphere since they first starting walking the Earth, initially in small amounts until they ramped up during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. The amount pumped into the atmosphere has been rapidly increasing ever since.

Interestingly, not all sources of human activities pump the same amount of CO² into our atmosphere. The top three U.S. emissions by source might seem obvious, but some details could be surprising:

35% Transportation Sector - Burning fossil fuels, such as gasoline and diesel, was the biggest contributor to CO² levels in 2019 at 35% of total emissions, and 28% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That’s not surprising considering our addiction to zooming around in cars, planes, ships and trains.

31% Electricity Sector - Coming in at a close second, the burning of fossil fuels to satisfy our consumerism lifestyle — everything from air conditioning to digital devices — accounted for 31% of total U.S. CO², and 24% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But one source is worse than others, specifically coal, which produces more CO² than natural gas or oil.

16% Industrial Sector - While several industrial processes emit CO² through fossil fuel consumption, surprisingly, it’s also from the production of mineral products, including cement, iron and steel, and chemicals. In 2019, 16% of total U.S. CO² emissions and 13% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions resulted from American industries. That’s not including the electricity these industries use, which results in even more CO² emissions.

While we’re out there, living our best lives and emitting tons of CO² into the atmosphere, there’s something surrounding us that is actually helping remove it. 24/7. It’s all around us, and it’s free!

There’s a fancy term that scientists use that explains this phenomenon--it’s called ‘carbon sink’. Sounds complicated, but it’s so simple that it’s always been part of our daily lives. Since forever. Carbon sink is simply the ocean, soil, forests and plants absorbing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than is being emitted. Kind of like a big, natural sponge that’s soaking up all that nasty CO².

Previous to the Industrial Revolution — and increasingly worse since — the Earth could generally keep the carbon dioxide levels steady through the carbon cycle, such as photosynthesis when leaves use CO² to produce energy, then release oxygen back in to the air. With human activity, industry and certain types of farming, the Earth just can’t keep up.

You see, the Earth just can’t reverse CO² levels alone--our Big Blue Marble needs our help. Thankfully, there are nearly 8 billion people on this planet who can all pitch in just a little to help reverse our dangerous CO² levels. And that, my friends, is referred to as ‘net zero, which is a newfangled word for what the Earth use to do — balance the amount of greenhouse gas produced and remove it from the atmosphere.

Thankfully, there’s a plan. A big, huge worldwide plan to achieve this and it’s called Net Zero 2050. Basically, the amount of CO² level emissions are balanced with their removal. Whatever is put into our atmosphere is removed.

Within the next 30 years, many of the world’s leading nations have committed to creating a cleaner world for ourselves and the generations to come. This commitment comes in the form of clean energy — like solar and wind power — all electric vehicles, better farming practices, and investing in infrastructure to withstand the effects of climate change.

While we need better environmental policies to tackle the big problems associated with reducing CO² levels and greenhouse gases, each and every person can do something every day to help. Just like 15th century English poet John Heywood said, “many hands make light work.”

Inspirational organizations such as Green America — and there are countless more agencies just like them contributing to the efforts — offers 10 solutions to help the environment, even some ways that a single person can easily do daily. Simple things like reducing food waste, reducing dependency on refrigeration and eating a plant-based diet can all help reduce CO² levels and greenhouse gases. Every little bit helps.

Those sound pretty simple, right? Yes! Can we all put in just a little bit of effort to help reduce CO² levels and get us back to net zero? Yes, we can, and yes, we must.

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