CO2 Emissions: Reducing Carbon Dioxide Emissions in 2021
By Georgette Kilgore | Updated on August 18, 2021
By Georgette Kilgore | Updated on August 18, 2021
Attaining a zero carbon footprint isn’t impossible, you just need to know what CO2 emissions are, and understand the many ways to reduce them worldwide.
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CO2 is the scientific notation for carbon dioxide, a molecule that contains one atom of carbon and two atoms of oxygen. It’s a critical part of the Earth’s atmosphere because vegetation needs it to survive… but the amount is important. Because it’s a common byproduct of combustion, the process of burning carbon-base molecules (such as gasoline or wood), it’s been increasing over the past few decades.
Now, we are living in a time where the excess amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere are causing harmful, damages to the planet. Why? Because the concentration levels are way over the mark, and the planet can’t process it. Plus, CO2 holds more heat, making the temperatures rise.
The US Environmental Protection Agency defines greenhouse gases as gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. The most common two are CO2 and methane, however there are many others.
Volcanoes, all living animals, some microscopic organisms emit CO2… but for the most part, animals (mostly humans) generate CO2 in large amounts thanks to advancements in the quality of life (like having clean running water and electricity). In 2019, the United States alone released about 5,130 million metric tons (5,654 million US tons) of CO2… and the U.S. isn’t even the world’s largest producer! China produces about twice as much as the U.S.
Greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for all sorts of problems facing our planet, from climate change to dying corals. Fortunately, there are ways to limit the CO2 you generate.
Scientists use a standard called the Global Warming Potential (GWP) to determine how powerful the effect of a given greenhouse gas is relative to CO2. Methane, for example, is about 30 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. As a result, although about five times more CO2 is being released, methane’s effect is about six times as high.
According to the International Energy Agency, global CO2 emissions related to electricity generation have been on the rise for at least 20 years. The slow but steady shift from fossil fuels to renewable energies will help eliminate this emission source.
Incidentally, your carbon footprint includes additional greenhouse gases and carbon sources like fluorinated gases and methane. But, by focusing on CO2 alone, you can significantly lower your carbon footprint and eventually achieve a zero footprint.
As you might have expected, the largest two emitters of CO2 are the world’s largest two economies – the US and China. What you might not have realized is that China produces about twice as much CO2 as the United States and four times as much as the third largest emitter, India.
Europe has a comparably large economy, but thanks to robust environmental regulations the EU releases far less CO2 than America. In fact, America produces about a seventh of the world’s CO2 despite having only about a twentieth of its population.
US CO2 emissions are actually decreasing due to environmental efforts and the increasing affordability of renewable energy. Currently, only 20 percent of energy production comes from nuclear or renewable energy (like hydroelectric power). However, that number is expected to rise.
In 2019, the US released 5.9 billion metric tons of CO2. Fossil fuel consumption accounts for the lion’s share, although it should be noted that methane and fluorinated gases have a disproportionate effect on the global warming due to intrinsic factors. Fluorinated gases are generally high-GWP gases (gases that have a greater effect per unit on global warming).
There are various types of CO2 emissions calculators, such as this one from the US Environmental Protection Agency. Knowing your personal impact is the first step in reducing your footprint.
While there are a variety of factors that go into the efficiency of various power sources across the world, we can use the US data (which is reliable and readily available) as a guide when it comes to clean energy. The US Energy Information Administration uses pounds (of CO2 per kWh) to show which fuels produces the most CO2 per unit of energy. Coal is much “dirtier” than natural gas (2.21 vs 0.91 lbs/kWh). However, petroleum is not generally used as a fuel in power plants (for which we should be thankful).
Although most people think the United States has traditionally produced the most CO2 per capita, it doesn’t. And recently, Saudi Arabia has overtaken the United States. See a chart of the top CO2 emissions per capita here.
European nations such as France and Germany are currently competitive with Japan on a per capita CO2 emissions basis. The per capita measure can be somewhat misleading, as countries with small populations can have misleadingly high scores. For example, the US produces 15.2 tons of CO2 per capita, but Kuwait, with a smaller population, has a per capita measurement that is higher. In fact, on a per capita basis, the US ranks 16th and China ranks 42nd despite the two combining for nearly half of the world’s CO2 production.
While Europe, the US, and Russia have generally decreased their emissions over the last 20 years, China and India have steadily increased theirs. In fact, China is on track to double the highest amount of CO2 ever released in a year by the US, within the next decade. As China’s economy has grown, so, too, has its energy demands. China has about four times the population of the US; if China’s per capita CO2 emissions were to reach US levels, it would be an unmitigated disaster.
Although the dawn of the Industrial Revolution heralded a critical milestone in the advancement of modern civilization, it also heralded the beginning of a new era – an era in which mankind could meaningfully and permanently harm his environment.
Some climate change skeptics have erroneously claimed that volcanoes produce more CO2 than mankind ever can. Actually, according to climate.gov (part of NOAA), there are individual states in the US that produce more CO2 in a year than all of the world’s volcanoes combined. Volcanoes do release carbon dioxide, but not in amounts that are comparable to what’s produced by man.
Deforestation is a major source of CO2. Forests sequester carbon dioxide (vegetation is a massive carbon sink, along with the ocean), meaning they trap it and use it. The carbon remains stored in the forest rather than going into the atmosphere and causing problems. But when forests are burned, the carbon stored in tree trunks, leaves, and roots is ultimately released back into the atmosphere. And, burning wood for energy can release up to 30% more CO2 than coal.
A gallon of gas releases about 20 pounds of CO2… every gallon.
Brace yourself, in 2019, the total CO2 emissions generated by humans was a whopping 72,973,008,783,194 pounds (33.1 billion metric tons, or about 36.5 billion US tons. For comparison, the heaviest man made object ever weighed was launchpad 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which weighed a measly 5.3 million pounds.
We produce a lot of CO2. In fact, the average carbon footprint per person is four tons, per year. That’s the amount averaged out… but for Americans, the average footprint is a whopping 20 tons per year. The Earth simply can’t cope with that much extra CO2.
CO2 is a major contributor to Global Warming and climate change We’ve seen the ‘results’ of this in increased wildfires, floods, and other natural disasters. The ocean (as the world’s major carbon sink) is capable of mitigating the effects of Global Warming to an extent by absorbing some CO2, but this leads to changes in ocean chemistry that can be catastrophic to marine ecosystems.
The combination of these changes can ultimately lead to bleaching events, which have the potential to destroy entire ecosystems. It is difficult to overstate the devastation caused marine ecosystems by global warming and marine acidification.
Although CO2 emissions remain a huge environmental problem, there is hope. Responsible corporations like Google have unilaterally decided to go carbon neutral, and responsible citizens like you can do your part to gain a zero carbon footprint.
Carbon offsets are the fastest and surest way to become carbon neutral. And some forestry programs allow you to erase MORE carbon than you generate. Because trees sequester carbon better than anything else on Earth, attaining a zero carbon footprint for the planet by 2050 is not impossible.
Forestry offsets allow you to sequester your own CO2, plus 8 Billion Trees includes additional benefits by protecting existing forests from destruction and rehabilitating animal habitats. It’s just one of the ways we are committed to being “carbon plus” with everything we do!
Other changes you can make to lower your footprint include reducing electricity and vehicle use. To learn more about the ways you can erase your footprint in one week, click here.
If humans have the power to destroy the environment, we also have the power to heal it. By doing your part today to reduce carbon emissions, we can help protect the planet for tomorrow.