There are lots of words out there in the news: global warming, climate change, carbon footprint…but what do carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses really have to do with climate change? What’s the real deal with carbon?
The History of Carbon
First of all, carbon – a primary greenhouse gas in the Earth’s atmosphere alongside water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone – has been around the world for a long time. Carbon is always moving and is ever present in our ecosystem.
Plants absorb carbon from the air and when animals eat plants – and those animals are eaten by bigger animals – they also absorb carbon.
Carbon is then replaced in the soil – or dissolved in ocean water – through animal excrement or decomposition, where it is stored or released back into the atmosphere. Over millions and millions of years, some of this carbon from dead plants and animals that has been trapped underground has turned into “fossil fuels” like coal, oil and gas.
Humans have impacted this natural system by cutting down trees and clearing forests that have played a critical role in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. At the same time, we are digging up carbon from deep underground and burning it to create energy. This has greatly increased the amount of greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere.
This short animated video from the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota does a great job of explaining the carbon cycle and our impact on the world.
The Effect of Carbon
All of this increases the amount of carbon being pumped back into the air. The plants and oceans can’t absorb all of it, so the carbon forms an insulator around the earth that traps heat from the sun.
Ultimately, this results in the earth getting hotter over time, which adversely affects all kinds of natural systems.
The amount of rainfall can be altered, which ultimately affects crop yields and the overall quality of crops. Likewise, sea levels and warmer ocean temperatures can affect oceanic ecosystems, as well as shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and water pollution.
All of these changes in sea level, rainfall and temperature impact how much energy we consume. For example, when temperatures rise, we use more electricity for air conditioning. Warmer climates can also reduce the efficiency of power production for existing nuclear and fossil fuel plants that use water for cooling.
Your Carbon Footprint
As energy consumers, we all contribute to the carbon problem. According to the EPA, our production and use of energy – most of which comes from fossil fuels – accounts for more than 84% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Daily activities such as driving a car, using electricity and generating waste all create greenhouse gas emissions that collectively make up your “carbon footprint.”
The good news is that there are simple things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint such as using less energy (even changing to energy efficient light bulbs can make a difference!), insulating your home to heat and cool more efficiently, recycling, composting, not eating beef, planting trees, conserving water and powering your home with electricity generated from renewable energy sources like solar and wind.
All of these things are simple, easy ways you can make a powerful impact on the world around you by keeping its natural systems in balance.
Want to know more about your carbon footprint? The EPA’s provides a Household Carbon Footprint Calculator on its website here.