You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of carbon emissions, climate change or how human activities have impacted our planet. However, you’d be equally hard pressed to find someone who thinks about their personal emissions every minute of every day. That’s because carbon emissions are essentially invisible, largely intangible, and don’t impact us on a personal level in the same way as a flood, a fire, or a giant pile of plastic recycling. This makes the concept of carbon emissions and their impact on the planet a little hard to grasp, even though they have had a large part to play in bringing about environmental catastrophes like floods or fires.
We’re unpacking exactly what carbon emissions are, because we believe that the more you know about carbon and carbon emissions, the better equipped you can be to make a positive difference to your impact on the planet.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CARBON, AND CARBON EMISSIONS?
The element, carbon, is actually the most common element on earth. It exists in the air we breathe, the food we eat, even the chemical makeup of our bodies. To put it simply, Life on Earth is based on carbon. So, we can understand why it can be a little hard to see what all the fuss is about when climate scientists talk about increasing levels of carbon emissions and how that’s a bad thing.
However, when we talk about carbon emissions, we’re specifically referring to carbon dioxide, also known as C02. C02 has been a naturally forming gas that is an essential ingredient to life on earth. Plants take in CO2, keeping the carbon and giving away the oxygen, and animals (including humans) breathe in the oxygen and breathe out C02. The relationship was symbiotic for hundreds of millions of years - until the industrial revolution.
Since then, humans have been burning fossil fuels, including coal and oil, at a higher level than ever before, increasing C02 concentrations in our atmosphere at an alarming rate. At the start of the industrial revolution, the yearly global emissions were 0.1 billion metric tonnes of C02. At this level, the plant life across the globe could easily maintain the balance of total CO2 in the atmosphere.
With a growing demand and population, the world has seen incredible increases in emissions in the last 70 years, with over 36.4 billion metric tonnes of C02 emissions released into the atmosphere in 2021 alone.. At the same time, we’ve been cutting down forests and reducing the amount of wild grasslands and shrublands across the planet. In 1700, 90% of the earth’s habitable land was covered by vegetation, but by 2018, this was reduced to just 52%. We’ve essentially ramped up emissions while also reducing the earth’s natural capacity to deal with these emissions, and that has devastating consequences on our environment, our climate, and our planet’s future.
WHERE IS ALL OF THAT CARBON DIOXIDE COMING FROM?
There are both natural and man-made sources of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The naturally occurring CO2 comes from sources such as volcanic eruptions, plant decay, naturally occurring wildfires, and even the breath and digestive systems of animals. These natural sources of carbon dioxide are offset by “carbon sinks”—things like photosynthesis by plants on land and algae, direct absorption into the ocean, and the creation of soil and peat. For a while, some scientists considered whether the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were actually naturally caused and viewed humanity's emissions as minuscule in comparison. However, with the development of accurate weather stations, satellite imaging and chemical analysis we can now track where carbon emissions are coming from with pinpoint accuracy, and humanity’s emissions are definitely no drop in the ocean.
One of man’s main sources of CO2 emissions is the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas to generate energy. Fossil fuels formed millions of years ago from the carbon-rich remains of animals and plants, as they decomposed and were compressed and heated underground. Burning fossil fuels has been powering economies for over 150 years as they are extremely efficient at generating huge amounts of energy. As a result, they currently supply about 80 percent of the world's energy. However, when fossil fuels are burned, they release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, and since 1900, the global carbon emissions from fossil fuels have significantly increased.
In the last 50 years alone, CO2 emissions have increased by about 90%, with more than three quarters of the amount due to emissions from fossil fuel burning and industrial processes.
WHY ARE INCREASING CARBON EMISSIONS CONTRIBUTING TO GLOBAL WARMING?
With enormous amounts of C02 emissions going into the atmosphere every year, the impact on our earth is anything but subtle. C02 and other greenhouse gasses are exceptionally good at holding in heat, acting like insulation to keep the earth warm. However, as the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere goes up, the temperature of Earth also heats up, leading to a long-term rise of the planet's temperatures.
SO THE MORE CARBON DIOXIDE THERE IS, THE HOTTER THE EARTH GETS. WHY IS THAT A PROBLEM?
The earth is heating up at an alarming rate, and the IPCC predicts that we will easily see 1.5ºC of global warming in the next few decades - even if we make dramatic changes. It sounds small, but the impact if this change is immense.
The effect of heat in the atmosphere affects everything and anything that is weather and climate related; from how fast winds blow, to the formation of clouds; to the circulation of the oceans’ current, and the ecosystems in which our plants and animals thrive. It also influences the temperature of the sea, which in turn affects the rate at which ice from the polar region melts, and causes more moisture to evaporate into the atmosphere, which is driving extreme weather events including hotter temperatures, prolonged droughts and more severe storms.
The implications of this climatic change on life are alarming; it will cause the crops we depend on to fail regularly, creating global food shortages, and will cause vital fragile ecosystems to crumble, driving widespread extinction of wild animals, birds, sea life and insects across the world. Even our cities aren't safe. The extra heat predicted by global warming experts will melt the ice caps and raise sea levels, flooding hundreds of cities around the globe.
Around 410 million people are already at risk of losing their homes to rising sea levels.
And while many people deny that extreme weather events are at the hands of human activities, the evidence is there. There are supercomputers all over the world running incredibly accurate weather modelling programs that work to predict the weather. However, these are now being tweaked to take into account the massive increase in carbon dioxide in the air to improve their accuracy. This data means that we can also determine whether a deadly storm or drought was caused by climate change because highly accurate models can attribute that the extra heat trapped by higher levels of carbon dioxide caused these weather events.
SO NOW THAT WE KNOW HOW AND WHY CLIMATE CHANGE IS HAPPENING, THE BIG QUESTION IS, CAN WE STOP IT?
With all the implications of global warming, there is a sense of urgency in the air when it comes to the need to reduce carbon emissions on a global level. However, carbon emissions are still increasing at an alarming rate, and have reached a global all-time high in 2022. And while the climate crisis has been a hot topic for many years now, with many countries and businesses opting for greener ways of doing business, it’s easy to wonder: what is causing the rise?
The answer is demand. Quite simply, our population is growing rapidly, and more of us are living an energy-hungry life, which means more emissions. Countries around the world are doing their part to drastically reduce our carbon emissions in order to keep global warming below 1.5°C by 2050. This goal has been agreed by governments around the globe, including Australia, as it is a tolerable level of warming. To achieve this Australia, along with many other countries, has committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. But even if these government solutions are in place, there is still a need to reduce carbon emissions at a local and individual level if we are to have a chance at reaching net zero.
Not all of the emissions are out of our individual control. There are many things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint. For more information about how you can make a difference and take control of your environmental footprint, read our article, top 10 ways we can all fight climate change. To find out how to offset your personal carbon emissions, read about our projects here.
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