So What's the Deal with CO2?


Alyson Gessner

Sustainability 101

June 8, 2021

It’s impossible to live in the 21st century and not hear about carbon dioxide and global warming, but what exactly does CO2 do? Why’s it such a big deal anyways, and what does it have to do with climate change?

Carbon dioxide—abbreviated to CO2—is a greenhouse gas made up of one carbon and two oxygen atoms held together by double covalent bonds. The molecular composition of greenhouse gases means that they absorb the infrared radiation being emitted from the Earth, and send it back to the surface. Some level of greenhouse gases are necessary to warm the planet—without them, the light reflected by the sun and emitted by the Earth would be sent right through the atmosphere and back to outer space, and the planet would be too cold to support many of the species alive today. Too many greenhouse gases, however, can heat the planet beyond a livable climate, and human industrial practices combust CO2 at unprecedented rates.

Scientists advocate that we need to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 in order to prevent the most damaging affects of climate change. Net zero means that the amount of carbon entering the atmosphere is equal to the amount being removed. Practices like carbon capture, regenerative agriculture, and reforestation act as carbon sinks and can help offset any CO2 still being emitted. This compares to being carbon negative, which requires carbon to actually be removed from the atmosphere at a faster rate than it is being added. Greenhouse gases function like a blanket, so the Earth will keep warming even after emissions are stopped. Removing carbon is the only way to cool the climate.

So what can we do to help? There are plenty of individual choices we can make, such as opting for clean transportation like biking, carpooling, or electric vehicles, reducing consumption, cutting back on meat, and supporting companies with carbon-safe practices.

But the top 100 corporations emit 70% of greenhouse gases, and individual consumer changes won’t be enough. As a global society, we need to be working on passing aggressive climate policies (and electing officials who will support them), increasing education on climate issues, investing in renewable energy and green tech, divesting from fossil fuels, and holding corporations accountable. 

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