Carbon talk is everywhere, from carbon footprints and carbon sequestration to credits and emissions and offsetting. What role does carbon play in climate change, and how are humans trying to fix the problem?
When we breathe, we exhale carbon dioxide. When volcanoes breathe, they also exhale carbon dioxide. It is considered a natural, neutral building block of life on earth, a natural part of many geological, biological, and chemical processes that keep life on the planet in balance. So what happened to throw us out of balance? The industrial revolution and burning of fossil fuels.
When more carbon dioxide was released, it rose into the upper atmosphere, where it joined water vapor, methane, and nitrous oxide in the blanket around the earth that is our atmosphere. It is long-lasting, and it reflects heat toward the earth. There is too much carbon being released on earth, and too much stuck in the atmosphere. This extra carbon, along with methane and nitrous oxide, makes up the greenhouse gases that are warming the earth.
There are several natural processes in which carbon is sequestered, or held in a form not available as gas. The most common is in trees, where the carbon is contained within the body of the tree and is not available to rise in the atmosphere. Trees take up carbon. Unfortunately, during wildfires, the trees dump their load of carbon back into the atmosphere.
Several geoengineering efforts in research involve artificial carbon sequestering, such as capturing carbon dioxide and storing it at the bottom of the ocean. At this time, geoengineering has not found a workable way to sequester carbon safely, and engineering an activity that will have impacts across the earth is complicated. Trees are still a slow-growing, but effective option.
How much do your daily activities impact the earth, and particularly climate change? The carbon footprint is a way to measure the impact of many disparate activities on the fragile and critical climate balance. There are several online tools and measurements; they give a person a ballpark figure and areas in which to improve. The goal for many is to have their daily activities be net carbon zero or net neutral, meaning no additional carbon is put into the atmosphere from activities and consumables.
This is part of the eco-speak that is becoming common in consumer product marketing. But what does it mean? With the goal of a carbon footprint being zero, many products will calculate their carbon footprint and then make an effort to sequester that much carbon in other ways. For example, shipping and transportation burn a lot of fossil fuels. A product may claim carbon zero status by calculating the carbon cost of shipping, and then planting enough trees in a developing country to offset that amount of carbon.
Carbon insetting is when the carbon footprint within a product’s supply chain adds up to net zero; this is a more complex process, but will probably be more accurate in reducing emissions or sequestering carbon. For example, food that is purchased from a local farm through a CSA will have a reduced carbon footprint compared to food that is grown similarly but is shipped from California-the carbon emissions from the transportation costs will change the carbon footprint of the food.
This is a financial paradigm that is attempting to structure global frameworks for the cost of carbon emissions. In 1995, the Kyoto climate accords attempted to set global standards for fair trade and practice, to reduce greenhouse gases and reduce the rate of climate change. Both governments and voluntary organizations are tracking carbon credits, equal to a ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, from a process or practice.
When it was just the earth, the plants, the animals, and us, the earth managed to keep itself in balance. When we started making machines and looking for ways to power them, the balance shifted. We’re at a tipping point now, and engineering efforts to slow the effects of industrialization on the planet as a whole are still showing questionable efficacy. But every action has a cost or savings; each choice can be compounded by the number of people across the planet, making similar choices and changes.
Industrial work in geoengineering is increasing, though under the radar. Financial managers who understand and are familiar with carbon credit systems in global finance are valuable in their systems. The start-up world is collaborating with university researchers to bring solutions to the marketplace. Various forms of textiles are playing a significant role in geoengineering efforts to sequester carbon and bring carbon equity to supply chains.