Carbon Emissions Explained: Why is too much CO₂ in the atmosphere a problem?

Science & Tech
May 21, 2021
Avely Pütsep

Carbon is a complicated subject. Carbon emissions – even more complicated. But we’re here to help you understand this important issue.

Are carbon emissions to blame for climate change? Let’s find out.

Keep reading to learn:

  • Why should you care about carbon emissions?
  • Why does too much CO₂ in the atmosphere matter?
  • Wait, what are carbon emissions?
  • What are some natural and human sources of carbon?
  • How much CO₂ in the atmosphere is man-made?

Why should you care about carbon emissions?

If the balance of CO₂ was only up to nature, we’d probably be fine. Nature has kept carbon emission levels on track for a long time.

It gets messy when people are added to the mix.

People burn, extract, transport, and refine fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. We release a lot of harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

To make things worse, we cut down carbon sinks like forests. Forests are logged for agriculture, developments, and timber.

Plus, when these trees burn or decompose, they emit even more CO₂.

By removing forests we effectively remove the natural systems that absorb and store carbon.

In conclusion: we disturb the balance by producing too much CO₂ and then don’t clean up the mess. With so much additional CO₂, nature can’t keep the balance anymore.

By removing forests we effectively remove the natural systems that absorb and store carbon

Why does it matter if there’s too much CO₂ in the atmosphere?

CO₂ is one of several greenhouse gases absorbing radiation and preventing heat from escaping the atmosphere.

Very simply explained: the more CO₂ in the atmosphere, the more heat is trapped on Earth.

What happens when temperatures rise on Earth?

  • Weather patterns are disrupted
  • Global temperature averages increase
  • Species extinction rises
  • Freshwater is lost
  • Natural resources are depleted
  • Pandemics are more common

The list is almost endless.

Is CO₂ bad for the planet? Not entirely, but carbon emissions are one of the climate change causes.

What percentage of CO₂ in the atmosphere is man made? There are no certain answers but speculations say ⅓ of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is man made.

So, what even are carbon emissions?

CO₂ is the most commonly used greenhouse gas. A carbon atom “joins” with two atoms of oxygen, hence the name CO₂.

CO₂ emissions occur when CO₂ enters the atmosphere through various processes such as burning fossil fuels.

Are carbon emissions the same as greenhouse gases? Not quite. CO₂ is the greenhouse gas contributing the most to the climate crisis.

To reduce carbon emissions (that is, to release less CO₂ into the atmosphere) we need to use less fuel for everything: our cars, homes, electronics, etc.

This article uses the phrases carbon emissions and CO₂ emissions interchangeably, even though they’re not exactly the same thing. You can learn about the differences between carbon and CO₂ from our carbon explained blog post.

What is the main source of carbon dioxide on Earth?

Carbon dioxide has two major sources: natural and man-made.

What are some natural sources of carbon dioxide?

  • Most animals exhale carbon dioxide as a waste product
  • Organisms dying
  • Wildfires blazing
  • The decomposition of vegetation and other biomass
  • Volcanoes erupting

How are natural CO₂ sources offset? All these and more natural sources of carbon are offset by carbon sinks.

One of the biggest carbon sinks is forests. Trees are amazing at carbon sequestration and help “take” a lot of carbon from the atmosphere. The older the tree, the greater its ability to offset and store carbon.  

The older the tree, the greater its ability to offset and store carbon

What are some types of human carbon emissions?

  • CO₂ emissions from fossil fuels
  • Extensive deforestation
  • Land-use change

In addition to the big sources, there’s also the ones you don’t really think about daily.

Here’s a list of activities that contribute to your carbon footprint. While reading it, remember that these all need to be multiplied by billions to account for all of humanity:

  • Turning the light on
  • Charging a phone or computer
  • Riding a bus
  • Using a refrigerator
  • Paying with a credit card

Man-made CO₂ sources are also called anthropogenic sources.

How are human CO₂ sources offset? Human actions resulting in excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is too much for carbon sinks to handle. Heat is trapped in the atmosphere. That’s why we talk about global warming.

It’s nearly impossible to stop generating CO₂ as transportation, petroleum production, factories, and even agriculture practices all contribute to it. It’s the reality of the 21st century. What we can do is be cautious with our actions and understand their consequences.

It’s crucial to save the forests we still have left as they’re amazing carbon sinks.  

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