The flames of the fire hold my senses hostage. Staring at the orange flames dancing upward I hear the crackling release of carbon entombed in the hardened cell walls of the log. I feel the heat, a byproduct of the transfer of energy as the log is transformed from a solid to a gas. I stare. My mind wonders….what happened the year the carbon was captured from the atmosphere to make this log perhaps a hundred years ago?
The year 1918 – Carbon Dioxide (CO2) concentration is 290ppm
1918: Woodrow Wilson is President of the United States, the trenches of Argonne empty and World War I ends. Fritz Haber, a German physicist is awarded the Nobel prize for inventing the process to make nitrogen fertilizer from the air (the atmosphere is about 78% nitrogen), the last captive Carolina Parakeet dies in the Cincinnati Zoo, Nelson Mandela is born, the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere is 290 ppm.
The Carbon being released as a gas from the log I watch was a combination of cellulose, lignin, and hemicellulose, all complex compounds containing carbon.
The carbon cycle is one of the most important and profound ecosystem services on Earth. Plants take carbon dioxide in through photosynthesis and make sugars out of it. Animals eat the plants to make cells and grow. Animals die and their carbon filled bodies are consumed by microbes in the soil.
Soil Stores Carbon
Cover it up for a million years, add pressure and presto, we have coal and crude oil – fossil fuels. One of the greatest functions of the soil beneath our feet is to capture, recycle, and store carbon. The soil is the largest terrestrial reservoir of carbon.
We often hear of the macro-nutrients necessary for plant growth – nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) – but we don’t hear much about carbon as a nutrient. We don’t fertilize with carbon because plants take in carbon without human intervention.
In the past 100 years, we humans have extracted trillions of tons of solid and liquid entombed carbon from the depths of the Earth in the form of coal and crude oil. The world extracts and uses about nine billion tons of coal per year and about thirty-five billion barrels of crude oil per year. Humans have been on a fossil fuel binge economy since about 1900.
One of the by-products of all this conversion is the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gases that trap heat.
The year 2016 – CO2 concentration in Antarctica reaches 400ppm
In 2016 the last place on Earth without a 400 ppm CO2 concentration is reached – Antarctica. The Earth has not had this much CO2 in the atmosphere in four million of years.
Fossil fuels have served humanity well but it is time to move on. Scientists warn us that we need an atmosphere with a concentration of CO2 no higher than 350ppm.
Higher concentrations of CO2 cause our climate to change….warmer temperatures, more violent storms, more wildfires, more droughts, and sea level rise.
Cap and Trade
Our challenge is to lower the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. We can do this. First by reducing carbon going into the air and second, by capturing carbon in the air and putting it back into the Earth. This is called carbon sequestration. The cool thing (pun intended) is that we can use plants to do this.
Reduce carbon going into the atmosphere.
We need to put a CAP on carbon. Many countries and now US states are establishing carbon diets for carbon-emitting practices such as coal-fired power plants, car and truck exhaust, and agricultural tillage. We can then put a tax on carbon emissions above the established diet limits.
Revenue created by the taxes or from established carbon markets can be used to create incentives for practices that sequester carbon such as solar and wind energy, lowering transportation emissions, reduced agricultural tillage and carbon farming. This is called CAP and TRADE.
Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative
One of the recently created carbon markets is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) – the first mandatory market-based program in the US to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nine New England and mid-Atlantic states are members including three Chesapeake Bay states: Delaware, New York, and Maryland.
Legislation was introduced this year in Virginia to join the initiative but the bill was killed in committee along party lines. Democrats wanting to join and Republicans not. In fact, Republicans introduced a bill to require legislative action to join the RGGI. The bill passed along party lines.
All Chesapeake Bay states should join the RGGI or create their own carbon markets because it will help restore the Bay and improve human health. Breathing cleaner air is good for us!
Carbon sequestration/carbon capture is one of the best ways we can combat carbon excess released into the atmosphere. It is pretty amazing to see the potential benefits of capturing the carbon back into the soil. As far as the earth’s temperatures, we definitely are at a turning point as far as time is concerned. After going on a carbon-filled fossil fuel binge for 150 years, we are starting to reap what we have sown. We need to find as many fossil fuel alternatives as we can if we are to prevent climate change from becoming worse than it already is. There is a downside to this. We should consider that as a society, we have become so dependent on fossil fuel vehicles, we can’t just up and switch immediately to other sources. We need to implement the new sources with a transition period because based on our dependent history, we cannot just have a hard cutoff point (i.e.) electric vehicles. We also have to consider making the transition economically sustainable for lower-income populations. We have made great progress as a society, but it will be up to everyone to cut down on their individual footprint and for agriculturalists/engineers to find ways to transition efficiently and in a sustainable manner.
I think climate change will be THE problem of our generation. I don’t know how bad the effects will be or how soon those effects will really be felt, but I think it’s going to be a problem that will cause permanent changes in our society. Carbon capture technology is great, but I think the real kicker is going to be economic programs like cap and trade. I believe money is going to be the biggest motivator for us to really shift our efforts into gear regarding a clean energy future.
At this point, I think we have gotten the ball rolling on the energy transition enough that it is safe to say it will happen. The main concern is whether or not it will happen fast enough to prevent a lot of the disastrous effects predicted to occur if we allow 2 degrees of warming or more. I do think carbon sequestration can and will play a role in this, but I think the biggest priority right now should be placed on slowing our emittance of carbon, rather than on sequestering it. I think there is still much debate among scientists about whether or not our technology (in the next 30 years) will ever be advanced enough to sequester a significant amount of carbon. We need to invest heavily in deploying renewables and technologies we have today and continue to rely on soil, plants, and other natural carbon sinks to assist in sequestering carbon as we work on developing new technology that will hopefully permeate our future.
It’s wild to see how quickly things have changed since this blog was posted. In the past two years, renewable energy development in Virginia has skyrocketed from the VCEA. New companies, like the one I work for right now, saw a great business opportunity in the industry. The industry is actually advancing so quickly society and localities can barely keep up. RGGI was another program supporting the renewable energy field, as the limits on fossil fuels pushed clean energy needs. But recently, the Virginian Governor is trying to break these initiatives down. For someone who is all about “creating more jobs” and “driving the free market”, he is stifling one of the fastest growing fields in the country. Solar energy specifically is developing quickly in Virginia, and it needs all of the support, scientific input, and educated guidance to be distributed equally and efficiently. Solar has the potential to help with the carbon crisis in multiple ways. Not only is it a clean source of energy, it can be developed on brownfields or agricultural lands that have been drained of all nutrients. Pollinator habitats can be established under and around the arrays, which will capture carbon, restore the soil, prevent erosion, and provide habitats for an array of species. Then once the solar array has reached the end of its life, the decommissioning plan will be implemented, and the land has the potential for other uses.
Excess carbon in the atmosphere has been a topic of concern in recent years, and the problem is only increasing in severity. Although it seems like everyone wants to combat the high concentrations in the atmosphere, there is little effective action being done right now which will sequester real change and start the process of reducing the carbon in the atmosphere. Carbon sequestration and taxing carbon emissions are processes which will greatly help the atmosphere in its carbon concentration, but it is just the beginning. Cap and trade practices are important to incentivise the reduction of using carbon and instead adopting practices which are less harmful to the atmosphere. However, with the extensive history of the use of fossil fuels and the high concentrations of carbon already in the atmosphere changes need to be made quickly and by a large percentage of people and companies to start to see effective change. However, there is a societal block on the use of renewable energy in place of fossil fuels due to the comfortable and already adopted practices society has been using for many years. Even with dramatic change in practices there will not be immediate results as carbon takes time to degrade from the atmosphere. However, with incentives and knowledge on the severity of the problem there is hope of a transition to a more renewable future by individuals and large companies to reduce their carbon footprint.
The last article snippet about carbon dioxide from 1912 is an interesting backdrop for the ongoing conversation about carbon sequestration and movements like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. I’ve had the opportunity to attend conferences like the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society, many of which spark conversations about carbon sequestration as an industry. It’s always interesting to interact with engineers on the forefront of the movement to see what intersections there are between earth science, engineering, and climate studies. Additionally, it’s always shocking that we have a viable solution for moving carbon from the atmosphere to the ground -plants- and yet deforestation and urbanization continues at a devastating rate.
This is a topic I have frequently discussed in ISAT over the years, and I am always reminded at how big of a task is to reduce the carbon we are emitting as well as the carbon already in the atmosphere. However, I think it something we should be eager to try to solve, for the sake of human well-being but also because humanity will undoubtedly gain an immense amount knowledge during and after taking this complicated task.
Climate change has always been a huge concern to me but what’s also just as concerning has been how do we completely change the very fabric of what our society is based on, Oil. There just seems like there are so many problems to fix one we need to change our energy use but we also have to change the materials that we build just about everything with. I think that carbon tax is really the only way that we can facilitate companies and industry to swiftly and intentionally remodel. I would also have concerned for compinessed that dont have the fund for R&D or citizens that don’t have the economic stability to install renewable energy devices or upgrade to more energy efficient appliances. It seems like the power is leveraged to those who have the the power and capital to enact change quickly, but at the same time this is exactly what we need I wonder how this dynamic will play out and who might get left behind.
It is crazy to see that the scientific world was aware of the effects of releasing so much carbon into the atmosphere as early as 1912. This fossil fuel binge has caused a predictable and drastic change in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, yet there are ways to reverse this trend. Because this damage was done by us, it is only right that we attempt to remedy it as much as we can for future generations. This is obviously not something that will be a quick and easy transition, but fossil fuels need to be phased out by more environmentally friendly and renewable sources. This post talks about the importance of soil storing carbon, but the oceans are also another natural resource that are absorbing tons of our CO2 from the atmosphere. This is lowering the pH of our oceans, but just shows that if we stop emitting so much CO2 that the earth will attempt to reach equilibrium like natural systems tend to do.
Seeing these numbers put in context is always an alarming realization. The amount of damage that has been done can seem insurmountable. It’s frustrating to see these legislative efforts fail due to disagreements and party polarization. Joining the Regional Greenhouse Initiative should be a no-brainer, protecting human health from harm from climate change and dirty air is a bipartisan issue. To what extent have we implemented a carbon diet cap in the states? Biological carbon sequestration through plant growth is a very easy and straightforward way of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it back into the soil. More money should be put into afforestation and preventing deforestation of land due to animal agriculture and other human activities. The transition to alternative energy sources to fossil fuels cannot happen overnight but the longer we take to make strides in this area, the harder it will be to recover from the ecological damage and the more harm there will be to the economy when we inevitably deplete these resources. With this issue as well as most climate-related policy decisions, we are simply delaying the inevitable and forcing the consequences on future generations.
When I think about this article I think back to what we did in ISAT 300 last semester. The data is there to show that carbon levels have drastically increased in the past 100 years. However, one thing that I truly don’t understand, is why we continue to practice deforestation. Plants take carbon out of the air to give us oxygen. Yet, based on all the science we have done, all the lobbying, all the conventions about carbon emissions, world leaders gathering, etc, we continue to pump carbon into the air and take away the species that take it out of the air. The size of the amazon rainforest has drastically reduced in the past 50 years because of deforestation. We call the amazon rainforest the, “lungs of the Earth,” for a reason. I wish we would protect what we have and take more notice in our actions.
Seeing the levels and trajectory of carbon in the atmosphere puts into perspective just how important it is to take action now. When the levels were low, so was the need for change, but now that the levels are high, it is time to take large steps in action. This can be done through many different channels, but at least some of them should be explored to put a stop to the rising CO2 ppm. It takes many many years for carbon to leave the atmosphere naturally so it makes it necessary to stop it now before it becomes impossible to stop.
This post reminds me of the book by Paul Hawken, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. This book gives a list of 100 things currently being done to lessen carbon levels and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Of course it emphasizes the simple yet effective, “reduce, re-use, recycle” catch-phrase, but it investigates more comprehensive solutions than that. It provides strategies related to different sectors such as electricity, food, agriculture, land use, transportation, health and education and other energy related topics. One very effective way to drawdown carbon is to plant more trees (or really any type of plants). Plants take in CO2 from the atmosphere and store it where it belongs in the soil. Cover crops also do a great job at carbon farming. The book has a lot of great information in it and there is even a version of it available online for free. I highly recommend the book and checking out the website @ drawdown.org
I find it amazing how we can sequester carbon from the atmosphere using a variety of methods. Biochar, for example, has been shown to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. The use of carbon sequestering methods can significantly reduce carbon from the atmosphere and ultimately helps mitigate damages from climate change. Fossil fuels have a negative impact on the environment, the economy, marginalized communities, and many other factors. We as a society need to get away from using fossil fuels altogether and invest in clean energy. The story of the ACP gives me hope that if we come together, we can make big changes, such as turning the world away from fossil fuels; although it would not be easy or quick, it would be worth it.
This was a very interesting article to read the main points that I received from it is that the people of the United States have a lot of power to create change in the governmental system. One of the changes that I wanted to point out is that of the cap-and-trade model that the government and other organizations are starting to implement. This is creating a sustainable method of reducing the amount of CO2 found in our atmosphere and creating a healthier planet for us. Another point is that of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) which is forcing organizations to meet certain standards for waste. This means that the planet is going to be taken care of better and change is being made. This is inspiring for me because I want the world to stay beautiful and be taken care of and it is our responsibility to care for it. While looking through the article I couldn’t help but notice the solar energy panels. Recently I heard that solar energy is actually not that great for the environment and can actually be harmful. It increases the CO2 going into the atmosphere and creates lots of waste, is this true? Thank you for the blog post!
Katie, thanks for your comments. Where did you hear that solar energy is not that great for the environment? This is not true. Let’s talk.
It’s sad that CO2 concentrations are increasing even in Antarctica. Hopefully, however, we can decrease the amount of carbon emissions and implement more cap and trade policies nationwide and worldwide.
I was struck in class today when we looked at how the PPM of carbon has changed over our lives, especially using the website https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/carbon-footprint-calculator/carbon-by-birth-year/. With this website, I was able to find that Carbon PPM had increased by 43.28 since I was born when it only increased by 31.58 in the 20 years before I was born to when I was born. Using these two data points, it is clear that the increase in PPM will not be a gradual process, but is in fact speeding up and will continue to do so at faster rates in the future.
For over 150 years, we’ve extracted and quenched the Earth for its finite fossil-fuel resources. Subsequently, high amounts of excess carbon have been released into the atmosphere, resulting in climate change-related implications, like weather changes and increased natural disasters. Luckily, carbon sequestration has been introduced and implemented effectively, and society seems to be on the right step to conserving this resource and diverting attention to other sources; trade caps have also seen vast implementation, yet more needs to be done. Indeed, a transition period is likely foreseeable in the future – because of how comfortable society has gotten with such resources, it’s hard to shift the resources we use entirely.
This post was very interesting yet scary. I knew that our atmosphere had decreased in quality regarding CO2 emission but I had no idea it had gone up that high compared to previous centuries. The scariest part is probably not knowing what health effects there are at each threshold of PPM. For example, if we reach 500 and all is still mild, certain health conditions might hit us like a train. It could be very detrimental to humans and for us to realize that and start to move the PPM back down would not be instantaneous. I think putting a cap on CO2 emissions is a good idea and imposing a tax or penalty for those that go over it. It would decrease the emissions and most importantly provide an incentive to not go over. If we continue on the same path, who knows how high the PPM can get. I think it would be very interesting to be able to smell the air and experience life in the periods before the common era where the PPM was below 200.
This was a great read and I feel that we can all do our part to lower greenhouse gas emissions. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is a great start, cleaning up the bay will do nothing but benefit all parties involved. The fishermen will be happy because marine life will become more prevalent and seafood consumers will have access to cheaper and cleaner seafood. I come from a very agricultural heavy area and it has been interesting to see how farmers in my area will change their farming strategies to better support the carbon in the soil. It has been a topic of discussion in my town for a while and I would say most farmers are on board with cleaner ways of growing crops in order to protect the carbon found in the soil.
It is astonishing to see the fact the processes which seem so miniscule are changing our lives as we know it. The fact our CO2 has grown so much since the 1900s is in my opinion, terrifying especially since this is the first time i’ve ever heard about this. Scientist have the credibility to tell us how important it is to get down to 350, yet why is no one listening? This is something the public needs to be educated on, especially, due to its impacts, it is frustrating that this is information I was unaware of. The fact it causes more dangerous storms stood out to me due to the damage I have seen caused by hurricanes specifically, and most recently the destruction caused by Hurricane Ian. Although decreasing our carbon won’t defeat these storms all together I think trying to prevent these is vital because they keep increasing in destruction. I appreciate that this article combats this problem from multiple different angles which seems to be most effective, I just hope the parties involved realize the damage they are causing and do make the changes needed.
Carbon sequestration is a really beneficial way that environmentalists and concerned citizens can technically/literally “give back” to the earth. I also think it is an important issue to have less green house gas emissions and I believe it is very crucial for it to be a bipartisan issue rather than a partisan issue as there are not a variety of solutions on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or on how to better the environment as a whole. Overall, the solution is to investment which is beneficial to all citizens.
I believe the issues revolving around global carbon concentration is a topic that needs more attention. There are proactive things that everyone could be doing in our daily life to reduce concentration. I also believe that maybe this crucial issue should be integrated into K-12 teachings so children can start thinking about being precautionary when it comes to their carbon footprint. Some ways to reduce the carbon footprint on a more personal level are cutting out meat and dairy and going towards a more vegetarian diet, eating and shopping locally, minimizing plastics and packaging, avoiding fast fashion, minimizing electricity use, traveling more efficiently, and most importantly recycling. Doing your part to reduce your carbon footprint is as simple as making a few tweaks to the way you eat, shop and maintain your home. As I briefly mentioned, changes are easy enough for every member of your family to adopt, even kids.
Excess carbon in our atmosphere is obviously a huge problem that has grown over the past couple of hundred years. The growth in development and in technology has been a double edged sword in our societies. I think Fritz Haber is a great example of this; even though his contribution was in the realm of nitrogen, his ability to create innovations that produced great harm in the war as well as great strides in development is extremely similar to the use of fossil fuels. We have grown greatly because of them, but now we have to face the harm that their use has created in our world. In recent decades, however, I have begun to see a shift in our societal strides in development and the harm they cause to our environment. The increased efficiency and technological improvements in renewable energy options and other sustainable options over the past few decades have helped lessen the impact that development has on the world. While these improvements when mixed with concepts such as cap and trade are promising, there still is a lot of work that needs to be done about the current levels of carbon in the atmosphere. This is where I think concepts such as carbon sequestration and other reduction practices can really succeed.
Personally, I feel like I hear the phrase “climate change” so much, whether it be on the news, from politicians, or in ads, that I can begin to go numb to it and forget what it really means. This article on the science behind carbon emission increases is a refreshing reminder that it isn’t all impending doom and apocalyptic deadlines, but rather an opportunity to learn from humanity’s mistakes and save our environment. There are possible ways we can fix this, and eventually, even reverse the existing effects of climate change through methods like renewables and CAP and TRADE. Sustainability is an essential investment that will protect our livelihoods and those of future generations.
This was a very informative read. It saddens me to hear that we even have high carbon levels in Antarctica, where there is no humans. Climate Change has progressed far enough that even the non-occupied zones are suffering. The fact that bills are getting killed along party lines is upsetting to hear. I don’t understand why it has become a partisan issue that the government fights tooth-and-nail along party lines. The government should protect future generations, and one party seems adamant against legislation that would commit to that. When and why did environmental issues become so controversial along party lines?
This article was very insightful because I did not know the CO2 concentration in Antarctica was that high, or the recommended level of 350 as well. Climate change is a big issue over the past couple decades because it seems like it can occur through anything, and it was nice to see the process of carbon sequestration to try and remove some of the CO2. The RGGI is a great next step to preserve the bay and like the article stated, each Chesapeake Bay state should join the program because it helps the marine life and humans as well.
I can’t believe that as of 2016 there was more CO2 in the atmosphere than we’ve had in four billion years, that is absolutely crazy. I would love to see even more of a push for CAP and TRADE. It seems to provide a way for us to move to more renewable energy that will also still cushion our economy, seeing as many who are opposed to making changes towards renewable energy are worried about the cost of such a change.
This article is fascinating I didn’t realize how the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been on a steady increase each year. It is disappointing that Virginia is not a part of the regional Greenhouse Gas initiative if it would help lower the amount of carbon in the air.
We hear a lot of rhetoric surrounding the nihilism of climate change and how environmental activism is a discouraging process. However, the idea of using cap and trade to reduce the Co2 PPM to the livable/sustainable amount I feel is something we can all hold onto a little strongly as hope for future generations; myself and other people my age have stopped considering having children because we are afraid they will not have a habitable world to live in. And I think what could help with the confidence of being able to raise children is more available and popular knowledge of ways to stabilize climate change rather than rely on the negativity that individual actions can’t help in the long run.
Laura, we are making progress and it is because of people like you. Let’s keep moving forward.
The most impactful part of this article for me was seeing the difference in carbon concentration in 1918 compared to now, growing at an exponentially high rate in just 100 years. The need for immediate action to combat this rise and resulting climate change could not be more clear. Programs such as cap and trade and the regional greenhouse gas initiative are great steps towards solving this issue, but more work and dedication is needed to truly curb this rise in carbon concentration. Moving away completely from greenhouse gases in favor of renewable energy is the best and really only path forward to protect our planets climate.
It was interesting to learn the role that carbon plays on our planet. It was interesting to learn about the benefits of carbon because I feel that they are normally overlooked because of the way we have been abusing and overproducing carbon. When we expel as much carbon as we do with burning fossil fuels it actually has a major negative impact. It was shocking to see the statistics surrounding carbon and that earth has not seen this much carbon in the atmosphere in 4 million years. It was refreshing to see the different ways in which we can limit and put a cap on our carbon output. It is important that we make major steps to put an end to the excessive amounts of carbon we put into the atmosphere.
This article was very interesting as I learned a lot. I did not realize that Fritz Harbor came up with Nitrogen fertilizer in the air. Something that stood out to me in this article was the fact that CO2 in the air has spiked/increased significantly in the past couple of years showing that too much C02 is being emitted into the air. We need to come up with reasonable policy to prevent these high emissions and protect our planet so we can enjoy it for many years to come.
Climate change is currently a generational issue and will continue to be so if we don’t enact serious measures within our society to enable change then these continues bad effects will continue have an enormous impact on our lives. Carbon being such a Pro, instead of a Con really opened my eyes to how a lot of things can be deemed as harmful when overused. The Cap and TRade idea to reduce the uses of these gases sounds like a plausible but expensive solution that i don’t know will necessarily work
I am a biology major so I remembering learning a lot about the carbon cycle and the need for species diversity in our ecosystem for it to properly function. There are so many aspects we need to be fighting for more sustainable methods in order to reduce the consequences of global warming. I’m thankful the Cap and Trade policy as it uses economic influences to drive industries in better directions or at least help climate saving effort get the financial resources they need. I hope so strongly that our government will become filled with much younger representatives so many the scare of it actually having drastic effects on themselves will outweigh making decisions based on party politics.
It’s concerning to see how quickly the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere has increased in the past century or so. CO2 increasing by over 100 ppm in just a century is frightening, especially if its crucial that we keep the concentration at or below 350 ppm. I recently listened to an interesting podcast about Fritz Haber which talked about how his discovery of synthesizing fertilizer from the air both saved the world from starving and how the world population is likely billions higher than it would’ve been, but also is largely responsible for nutrient pollution problems we have today. This is comparable to the problem of a high CO2 concentration and climate change today, since CO2 is both essential to our survival in smaller amounts but is also very harmful when in overabundance.
I saw another comment about how this is going to be THE issue of our generation, and I think this is spot on. A lot of the conversation surrounding reducing carbon emissions seems to center around how costly it could be; however, I think the costliness of an excess of carbon emissions is rarely ever prioritized in the way it should be. I think cap-and-trade is a really great first step in holding people accountable for their emissions as well as encouraging companies to reduce their emissions in order to gain monetary value from this.