The Carbon Conundrum
In effect, Earth’s atmosphere insulates the surface like the glass walls of a greenhouse, causing it to warm over time. The Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius first described the effect in the late 19th century. In the past two centuries, greenhouses have accumulated in the air, the majority of them put there by humans’ large-scale combustion of fossil fuels. Because of this, Earth’s surface has been undergoing a heating surge, significant enough to overwhelm natural temperature fluctuation cycles.
Fossil fuels like petroleum, coal, oil and natural gas are formed deep within the planet’s crust organic matter buried there for centuries. As fuels, they’ve played a crucial role in powering the first industrial revolution and, over the years since, have provided an unprecedented amount of energy used to operate machines. These fuels contain hydrocarbons of different types; when burnt, they release carbon dioxide (plus other byproducts depending on the sort of fuel). The atmosphere’s carbon dioxide content has increased commensurately with people’ use of fossil fuels.
Today, the gas is one of the significant greenhouse gases, alongside the likes of methane. While methane is considered to be a trace gas in the air, its amount has been increasing as well. Notably, methane is around 25-times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. It is released from the burning of fossil fuels in addition to by germs and some insects in water-logged regions and in the oceans.
A few years ago, meteorologists noted that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide as detected by sensors installed in Hawaii had breached the 400 parts per million mark – the maximum level in three million years. The’achievement’ highlighted the precarity of humankind’s current situation: we are increasingly incapable of tolerating an occasional spike in emissions because it could tip us over the edge. The notion of Tipping Points Has Come to Dominate Climate Science The states that emit the most carbon dioxide are in Asia (over half the total), especially China, and North America (almost a fifth), especially the US. India also features prominently in the list of top emitters, especially since its emissions, principally from use of fossil fuels and cement-manufacturing, have almost doubled in the last decade.
Other emitters that are similarly profligate include nations in Europe and the Middle East. The links between economic growth and carbon dioxide emissions are plain. In many countries, like in Brazil, governments have been clearing forests to make way for agriculture, property, mines and dams.
Deforestation accounts for about a tenth of all carbon dioxide emissions around the world, in two ways. Forests counter the greenhouse effect by consuming carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, so eliminating woods leaves more of the gas in the air. Secondly, clearing a forest releases carbon dioxide since the timber of these trees is often burnt. Earth’s surface warmed by roughly 1º C during the last century.