What is CO2, and why does it even matter?

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a colorless, odorless gas found in our atmosphere. We can’t smell it, we can’t touch it, we can’t even see it. It can be hard to wrap your head around the importance of something that has no sensory attributes, so talking about the impact of carbon dioxide emissions often doesn’t provoke the response that it should.

If we told you that the average household emits approximately 10 metric tons of CO2 every year, it would probably go straight over your head - it’s a pretty abstract number.

Let’s give it a bit more perspective. The image below shows you what just one metric ton looks like. Multiply that two-storey house sized box by ten, and you’ve got the environmental impact of your home alone.

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Now, imagine the environmental impact of an entire city. We’ll use New York as an example. In one year, the Big Apple emitted 54 million metric tons of CO2. That’s enough to bury the Empire State Building with 149,903 ten-meter-diameter spheres, each containing one metric ton of CO2, in just one day.

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Through their warehouses, manufacturing plants, and transportation systems, one corporation can have the same environmental impact as an entire city, emitting millions of metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year.

According to environmental non-profit Carbon Disclosure Project, a mere 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of the entire world's industrial greenhouse gas emissions between 1988 and 2017. These 100 companies emitted a mind-boggling 923 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions during this time period. Thinking back to what just one metric ton looks like, you can understand that this is colossal.

OK yeah, I can picture what that looks like. But why does it matter?

In small volumes, CO2 is completely harmless. However, the dose makes the poison. 

Carbon dioxide accounts for nearly 85% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gases keep the Earth warm by absorbing and redirecting the sun’s energy back to the Earth’s surface. The more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the hotter our planet gets. 

Due to the colossal volume of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere every year, an over-abundance of greenhouse gases is created, trapping additional heat. The results of this are all around us: ice caps melting, ocean levels rising, and portions of the world becoming inhabitable due to extreme temperatures and flooding.

It’s a climate crisis, and it’s happening right now. 

Sarah Berney