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Carbon Footprint 101

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Carbon Footprint 101

Stop thinking of the Earth as a planet for a minute. Consider it like a very long natural experiment that has taken 4 billion years to find the perfect balance we see today. You might say the Earth has evolved to a point where it is now a finely-tuned machine. 

Now, hold that thought while considering something much smaller and more familiar: our human bodies. From the primordial sludge we have evolved, all these eons, alongside the Earth to become finely-tuned machines too. We understand systems crave balance; we recognize how reckless behavior can throw our system out of kilter. If we eat too much junk food, not enough fiber, or consume too much alcohol, our systems (circulatory, breathing, nervous, and many more) get whacked. We may regain something back the next day but if we keep things up, eventually our health declines, sometimes catastrophically. We have what we might call “internal tipping points” for our bodily systems. Now let’s zoom this metaphor back to Earth. Its health system cycles various elements and compounds, similar to our circulatory or digestive system, through its own body. It self-regulates quite like a living body, much has been written about the Gaia theory, and more on that in the next article about planetary boundaries. For now, I use this frame as a Carbon Cycle 101, namely to answer the question, “Why the F are we freaked out about the carbon cycle and those villainous greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions?”

The carbon cycle 

About 150 years ago, a woman in Connecticut discovered that a glass jar full of carbon dioxide was warmer than one filled with just air. Dr. Eunice Foote published her scientific paper, ‘On the heat in the sun’s rays’, published in the American Journal of Science and Arts in November 1856. So, the need to be careful about carbon in our atmosphere was known over 150 years ago! But hasn’t it always been a part of our atmosphere? If yes, so why are we so worried?

Because systems, remember? Carbon is regularly cycled between the atmosphere, ocean, and land surface. It is both a fuel and a waste, depending on who’s asking. Carbon is expelled by animal life and absorbed by plant life. It is normally in balance. Heck, many believe that balance was so remarkable in the past 10,000 years, that it was one of the catalysts for modern civilization. Carbon stability ushered climate stability. Climate stability created patterns. Patterns signaled dependability. Dependability-enabled planning. Planning ignited stability, and stability created human culture. Damn those were 10,000 great years!

We effed up

We found a way to upset the cycle. Humans started to burn fossil fuels (think driving, manufacturing, etc.) and created so much waste and pollution in such massive quantities, that plant life, soil and all other parts of the carbon cycle couldn’t keep sucking it up at the same insane rate. As Dr. Kimberly Nicholas puts it, “Before humans showed up, the carbon slowly leaking from rocks to sky via the oceans and volcanoes was balanced by carbon dissolving from the sky to rocks in rainwater. Today, our factories, cars, and other industrial activities emit more carbon in three days than all volcanoes do in a year. Humans are now adding carbon to the atmosphere hundreds of thousands of times faster than geology can remove it.”

To make matters worse, we are messing with our natural systems in other nasty ways. One of the most frightening stories is what we’re doing to the Amazon rainforest.  The giant jungle traps GHGs that otherwise would pile onto our problems. Yet, according to a March 8th article from the BBC, satellite data spanning three decades point to an alarming trend in the Amazon’s “health”, suggesting the world’s largest rainforest is “losing its ability to bounce back from damage caused by droughts, fires and deforestation.” Specifically, this quote from Dr. Chris Boulton of the University of Exeter scares the shit out of me: “[we] could be approaching a tipping point,” He goes on, “The Amazon stores lots of carbon and all of that would be released into the atmosphere, which would then further contribute to increasing temperatures….the implications for climate change, biodiversity and the local community would be “devastating.” Oh, and don’t get me started on what we’re doing to oceans.

Scale matters

So how badly have we been short-circuiting the cycle? We went from 280 parts per million (ppm) in the pre-industrial revolution, crossing 300ppm in the early 20th century (which hadn’t happened in over 800,000 years), and rose rapidly since the 1950s to the 420ppm we see today. One part per million is 1 milligram per 1 kilogram of weight. That’s effectively a single drop into 10 gallons of water. That doesn’t seem that a big deal, does it? I think the Campestre reader is smarter than the average Cal bear, but let’s humor the question for a hot second: if a 3ppm dose of Cyanide can kill a human… anyway, you get my point, I trust. So, this carbon buildup results in rising global average temperatures. Right now, the conversation centers around the goal of stopping the global average temperature from rising more than 1.5C from pre-industrial levels. Catastrophe would ensue if things go up another 3, or 4C on average. While those shifts in global averages don’t seem like a lot, didn’t we learn a thing from the Cyanide example? Fine, let’s put it in an anthropomorphic context. A human body rising from 98.6 to 100.1 under normal circumstances signals we are getting sick. A few more degrees and we can hit the hospital. Either way, we can safely say we feel rising “degrees of shittiness” – that’s precisely what the planet is going through now. We are at a point in history where rising CO2 levels are causing the planet to have a fever.

More Context? Weight for it.

Scientists often measure atmospheric CO2 ingress in metric tonnes (MT). Let’s dig deeper into what that means.  Do they really mean an actual ton of CO2 gas? Yes, but first, let’s make sure things are clear. While a ton is 2000lbs, a metric tonne (MT) is 1000kg, so 2205lbs. Most global organizations use MT, so let’s go with that. Gas seems so light, so how much is one MT? 

Imagine an empty milk gallon filled with CO2; that’s about the combined weight of a nickel and a dime (I won’t upcharge you for the dad joke I’m thinking of). Now fill an empty box of wine (~1 cubic ft.); that’s about 1.8oz., similar to the weight of a glass pour in a tasting room. A ton–pardon, a tonne of CO2, the metric climate scientists tend to use, is the equivalent of a 4-bedroom house, about 2,200 sq. ft., or a box 8 ft. high that fits inside one half of a basketball court.

Scientists calculate that we emit roughly half a pound of CO2 for every mile we drive. Sounds like a lot. If a gallon of gas weighs 6 lbs., that means we only use up about .3 lbs. of liquid gasoline per mile driven. How can the gas produced weigh more than the liquid consumed by the car?

First, CO2 is mostly oxygen by weight–roughly 73% oxygen. CO2 is created when oxygen is pulled out from the atmosphere and combined with the carbon released while we burn the liquid hydrocarbons (fuel). The net weight of CO2 is simply a quarter of the weight of total emissions added to air. So that car that is creating half a pound of CO2 is in fact, injecting a tenth of a pound of pure carbon into the air we breathe. At last, in its new form, that shit is what mixes with normal air in the ratio of 419ppm to slowly trap additional heat that earth wasn’t expecting and wasn’t ready to handle yet. And if you didn’t know, now you know.

Other villains for the next Zine

CO2 isn’t the only problem. There are a handful of other gasses that also possess the pernicious power to warm our atmosphere faster than it can recover. That’s for a later chapter.