Every time you drive your car to work, heat your home after a long day in the office, or hop on a plane for some well-earned relaxation time, you’re contributing to a dangerous rise in the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in Earth’s atmosphere.
Atmospheric CO2 is at a higher level today than it has ever been, having climbed to 407 parts per million (ppm) in 2018. The concentration of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere has increased by 46% since the Industrial Revolution began in the 1750s. More worryingly, it has increased by 13% in the last two decades alone.
The burning of fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and gas, to fulfil our energy needs is by far the greatest contributor to this rise in atmospheric CO2. It is estimated that the burning of fossil fuels accounts for 75-87% of all human-made CO2 emissions annually.
Of that, 42% - or as much as 36.5% of all CO2 emissions - are caused by the generation of electricity and heat. Transport and industrial activity are also major contributors at 22% and 20% respectively. Other sources make up an estimated 16% in total.
Aside from fossil fuels, industrial processes and land use changes such as deforestation are believed to account for the remaining 13% of CO2 emissions.
China is the biggest culprit according to the World Bank, emitting more than 10 million kilotonnes (kt) of CO2 annually. The United States is second, but produced close to half of that amount.
However, Qatar is the biggest producer of CO2 per person, followed by Curacao, Trinidad and Tobago, Kuwait and Bahrain.
Combined, the European Union contributes 2.8 million kt of CO2 each year.
All countries are contributing to the rise of atmospheric CO2, but one: Bhutan. Some 72% of the South Asian country’s land is covered by trees, which absorb six million tonnes of carbon annually - approximately four times as much as Bhutan produces.
The vast majority of CO2 emissions come from natural sources such as undersea gas releases and decomposition. For billions of years, oceans and organisms have help to keep the Earth finely balanced through photosynthesis, which removes carbon from the atmosphere.
However, rising levels of human-made CO2 has disturbed that balance.
Since 1880, the Earth’s temperature has been climbing by approximately 0.07 degrees Celsius (°C) per decade. However, that rate has doubled in the last 40 years. The situation seems close to breaking point, but it could still get a whole lot worse.
If we continue to burn fossil fuels at our current rate, CO2 concentration is expected to rise to 1500 ppm over the next few centuries. Yet, reversing it could take tens of thousands of years.
Not only will temperatures continue to increase, but ecosystems could be irreparably damaged too. Not only would this be damaging to health, but it could also make it significantly harder to grow many of the crops that humanity relies on.
Government-backed emissions reduction and clean energy initiatives are helping to slow the effects of rising CO2 levels. However, we all need to do our part to facilitate change.
From making fewer impulse purchases, to vacationing a little closer to home, simple actions can drastically reduce your carbon footprint.
Instead of driving to work, why not ride your bike?
Instead of switching on the heating, why not put on an extra jumper?
And instead of ordering a beef burger, why not opt for a veggie option?