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Atmospheric Carbon: What's Your Share?

There's a lot of talk these days about the likelihood that "greenhouse gases," the most common of which is carbon dioxide (CO2), will cause the Earth's climate to significantly change. If you're like most Americans, each time you drive your car, hop on a plane, flick on a light, or consume energy in other ways, you contribute in a small way to this effect.

Curious how much? This worksheet allows you to easily tally up your own personal "carbon budget."

Questions & Answers

Atmospheric Carbon: What's Your Share?

Home Electric
Home Natural
Gas Usage
Home Fuel
Oil Usage
travel of miles, at
miles per gallon, burns gallons of gasoline annually, putting pounds of carbon (about 5 lbs/gal) into our air.
travel of miles via commercial airline puts about pounds of carbon into our air annually. use of kilowatt-hours of electricity, if your power plant generates power from puts pounds of carbon into our air each year. use of Therms (Or ccf - hundred cubic feet) of Natural Gas contributes pounds of carbon to our air each year. use of gallons of Fuel Oil adds pounds of carbon to our air each year.


Your Total Contribution

Your total atmospheric carbon contribution is approximately pounds per year. That's pounds of carbon dioxide. Of course, this ignores all of the energy spent to produce all of the goods that you might want to double these numbers!

Questions and Answers

"Is this a problem?" Probably so. Although carbon dioxide is a normal and vital component of our air, its percentage has increased considerably because of human activity. The best scientific evidence is that the increase of this gas in the atmosphere will have a variety of effects on worldwide climate, including increase of average temperature, rising sea level, and increasing weather-related disasters.

"I thought that U.S. had done a pretty good job of decreasing pollution. Isn't this a problem with the rest of the world and not us?" The U.S. has reduced certain forms of pollution. However, carbon dioxide hasn't generally been considered to be a pollutant. Its release is simply a function of the amount and type of fossil fuel that we burn, and we burn a lot. The U.S., with 5 percent of the world's population, releases almost 25 percent of the world's CO2. We release at a per capita rate that is twice as high as the the next highest releasers on Earth.

"OK, let's just install some scrubbers on those smokestacks to remove that CO2." Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. Understand that the CO2 was created by the release of energy from burning the fossil fuel. To split it back into carbon and oxygen requires an equivalent amount of energy to what was released by the original burning. The energy to do this has to come from somewhere. Getting it from fossil fuel would be self-defeating, so we need to think about other sources of energy. How about solar? Well, this process takes lots of energy, and solar is really diffuse, so perhaps what we need is a factory that's really spread out. Hey, isn't this what a forest does?

"OK, so how much additional forest would be required to remove my CO2?" Well, according to information cited by the EPA, it would take approximately trees to remove your year's worth of carbon production.

"Hmm, that's a lot of trees. I'm not sure where to put them. Is there anything else I can do?" Well, you could reduce your fossil fuel use. Here are some things that most people can do to help:
  • Drive less, drive slower.
  • Trade in that Suburban on something more efficient.
  • Carpool.
  • Check/fix your house's insulation, caulking, and weather stripping.
  • Check out solar screens.
  • Set up/back your thermostat, especially when you're gone.
  • When you replace light bulbs, use compact fluorescents.

"What about energy sources that don't produce CO2?" Renewable energy technologies will in the future supply an increasing portion of your energy, and in many places are already playing a significant role.
Solar (most of our energy is ultimately from the sun anyway.)
Passive solar techniques used in houses provide a healthier and more comfortable home, and save lots of energy.

Solar water heating works great.

Watch for better and cheaper photovoltaics.

Wind (another form of solar)
Your utility may already be buying power from wind generators.

Biomass (yet another form of solar).

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