“We are being advised to reduce our carbon footprint. Discuss the significance of this for the individual and for industry” When talking about climate change, footprint is a metaphor for the total impact that something has and carbon is shorthand for all the different greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming (1). The term carbon footprint is a measure of the impact our activities have on the environment, and in particular climate change. It relates to the amount of greenhouse gases produced in our day-to-day lives through burning fossil fuels for things like electricity, heating and transportation.
A carbon footprint is made up of the sum of two parts, the primary footprint and the secondary footprint. The primary footprint is a measure of our direct emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the burning of fossil fuels. These fossil fuels are coal, oil and natural gas, they are all non-renewable and currently running out. Some estimates suggest that if we continue to use them at the rate we are currently doing there could be approximately just 45 years’ worth of oil, 70 years’ worth of gas and 250 years’ worth of coal left in the ground (2).
Another gas which is contributing to global warming is methane, this is derived from the bacterial breakdown of organic matter in swamps and in cattle, and it is currently increasing at a rate of approximately 1% per year (3). This is why we are being encouraged to start reducing our carbon emissions sooner rather than later. Although fossil fuels are incredibly useful they do present some major problems, the burning of the fuels produces carbon dioxide. As well as the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and the burning of vegetation has contributed to an increase in the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Plants require CO2 to carry out the process of photosynthesis however there needs to be a balance between the global rate of photosynthesis and the quantity of CO2 in the atmosphere, at the minute the balance between the two is uneven, Plants remove CO2 from the atmosphere to aid in the process of photosynthesis however humans are destroying huge areas of vegetation such as the tropical rainforest (4), therefore causing the rate of global photosynthesis to decline leaving more CO2 in the atmosphere.
The temperature of the Earth is a balance between the heat it gets from the sun and the heat it radiates back out into space. Gases in the atmosphere form an insulating layer helping to keep the heat in, this process is called the greenhouse effect and the gases are CO2 and methane, these gases are known as greenhouse gases. Without the greenhouse gases at night there would be nothing to keep the earth warm and we would get very cold. In 2001 Nelson Thornes suggests that without the greenhouse effect the average temperature on earth would be -17oC (5) meaning that life on Earth as we know it would be impossible.
Changes in the Earth’s temperature are common however the rate of which the temperature is rising is causing some concern, there has been an observed increase in the global temperature of approximately 0. 50C during the 20th century (6) and this is believed to be attributable to the increase in the amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The correlation between the increase in the Earth’s temperature and the increase in CO2 levels is pretty evident (7), however the debate remains of whether this increase in CO2 levels is the main cause of the rising temperature?
After much research there is now a consensus among climate scientists that the link between the two is casual and that the recent warming is anthropogenic as human activities are to blame. Over the last 150 years or so the world’s human population has increased and we have become more industrialised (8), this has caused more CO2 emissions. Methane levels have also risen as we have been growing more food to cope with a higher population. The extra CO2 that we are producing through excessive burning of fossil fuels is contributing to both global warming and climate change.
An enhanced greenhouse effect causes global warming. Global warming means there is more heat energy in the system; this will especially impact the Polar Regions where the greatest increase in temperature is expected. This will cause melting of the glaciers and rising sea levels, no one knows how much the sea levels around the UK will rise but estimations for 2050 suggest a rise of 0. 3 to 0. 6 metres (9). Global warming can cause drastic changes to the weather causing it to become stormier or even causing less rainfall resulting in droughts.
Throughout the world regardless of the type of change to weather, global warming will affect the growth and distribution of vegetation and this will have an effect on industry. There are many ways in which we can reduce our carbon footprint enabling us to contribute to reducing the greenhouse effect; wind power and solar power are two of the more common alternative sources of energy. There are two main strategies for combating the climate change and these are being applied by many governments and known as the ‘precautionary principles’ (10) these uggest that we should burn fossil fuels more efficiently and try to prevent levels of greenhouse gases from increasing so much by capturing some of the CO2, planting forests to absorb the CO2 from the atmosphere and where possible use alternative sources of energy. Typically in the UK 1gallon of petrol will create emissions of 10. 4kg of CO2 (11), the development of fuels such as biofuels are alternatives to fossil fuels, they are made up from living organisms’ waste or dead plants.
Microorganisms are used to decompose the plants and waste to create products such as biogas. Biogas can be used for heating and towards generating electricity. Biogas is a much better alternative to fossil fuels as it is renewable and the plants grown to make biogas are removing CO2 from the atmosphere by photosynthesis. One of the easiest ways to help remove CO2 from the atmosphere is by replanting forestation at the same rate that it is being used, this will allow more CO2 to be absorbed for photosynthesis meaning there will be less CO2 in the atmosphere.
Also bioethanol can be used as a fuel either on its own or when added to petrol, bioethanol is thought of as being carbon neutral meaning it has no overall carbon emission although there would still be carbon emissions in the process of making the fuel, The same applies for other alternative fuels for example biodiesel and gasohol, a vehicle can be adapted to run on a mixture of around 10% ethanol and 90% petrol – gasohol (12). Using gasohol instead of petrol would reduce the amount of crude oil being used.
Vehicles could also be made to run on hydrogen fuel, there is no carbon dioxide or sooty particles produced so it would reduce pollution and it is a renewable source of energy, however it is not very easily available therefore would be an expensive option. All these options do not eliminate carbon emissions as this is impossible however the objective for these alternatives is to reduce CO2 emissions. To do this would require government investment in these renewable types of energy and perhaps even investment into nuclear power. Many governments now accept the fact that a balance is needed between economic development and the environment (13).
As an individual there are many things that you can do in your every day life which would contribute to lowering CO2 emissions for instance recycling materials such as metals and plastics conserves these resources. Recycling things like copper, aluminium or glass uses only a fraction of the energy compared with the energy used when mining and extracting these materials. Using less energy also saves us money as the cost of everyday things like electricity and heating can be cut down if we are sensible with the amounts and types of energy we use.
This is the kind of thing we should be doing every day to reduce our carbon footprint, even the little things count. By walking instead of taking the car or even by using public transport you are reducing your carbon footprint, travelling by car a distance of 6km adds 1kg of CO2 to your carbon footprint whereas the equivalent of 1kg of CO2 travelling by bus or train would be a distance of between 10km and 12km (14). By using less water when cooking/washing, by turning off lights and having your thermostat set correctly you are not only saving energy but you are again saving yourself money.
There is only so much we as individuals can do without the assistance of the government. Industry is in a position to enable us to do more, by increasing the energy efficiency of power stations, increasing the fuel efficiency of vehicles, providing bigger grants for home insulation measures, introducing carbon taxes so that those fuels which contain most carbon are the most expensive, this will allow us to help to reduce the greenhouse effect. According to the European Climate Foundation Europe’s electricity supply can be decarbonised by 2050 if the finance and the regulations required are in place by 2015 (15).
If these alternative energy sources are invested in and enforced then Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by an amazing 80%. Already in the UK over the last twenty years the majority of CO2 emissions have decreased with transport being the only source to have increased (16). This proves that it is possible to reduce CO2 emissions and that we are on the right route we just need to reduce them on a much wider scale. The Climate Change Act 2008 set the UK a series of five-yearly carbon targets which would accumulate a total of 80% reduction of CO2 levels by 2050.
The first report expects that the UK will easily meet its target for 2008-2012; this is mainly due to the recession. (17) In the 1950’s scientists began to discover that humans could potentially affect the climate by producing too much CO2, more recently scientists have realised that the affects they previously predicted are already having a negative effect on the Earth’s atmosphere and climate. There has been a lot of time, research and investment put into finding and enabling alternative nergy sources however as yet they don’t tend to be readily available or affordable to make enable individuals to have a huge impact on the reduction of CO2 emissions. The only way in which we can effectively control the amount of greenhouse gases is by reducing our own carbon footprint, it may not seem like a lot but if every individual done what they could to contribute and reduce their own carbon footprint we would be well on our way to preventing global warming. If you personally want to contribute to stop global warming, the calculation and constant monitoring of your personal carbon footprint is essential.
If industry takes the first step towards reducing and enabling society to reduce CO2 emissions then we can all follow leaving less of a carbon footprint behind.
(1) The Guardian, Green Living Blog, What is a Carbon Footprint, no author stated, www. theguardianonline. co. uk/whatisacarbonfootprint Downloaded 19/10/11 (2) (6) (7) Mary Falkner (ed)/Sarah Hilton (ed)/ Paul Jordin (ed)/ Sharon Keeley (ed)/ Simon Little (ed)/ Andy Park(ed), AS Level Chemistry The Revision Guide, (2008), Coordination Group Publications Ltd, ISBN 978-1-84762-126-9. (3) (6) I. D. White/ D. N. Mottershead/ S. J. Harrison, Environmental Systems, 2nd edition, (1992), Chapman & Hall, 2-6 Boundary Row, London SE1 8HN, ISBN 0-412-47140-x (4) (5) (9) (16) Nelson Thornes, Environmental Science, 2nd Edition, (2001), University of Bath, ISBN 0-17-448305-8. (10) (12) (13) CGP, GCSE Chemistry The Revision Guide, Edexcel 360 Science, ISBN 978-1-84146-567-8. (11) (14) Time for Change, What is a carbon footprint? – definition, www. timeforchange. co. uk/globalwarming, Downloaded 20/10/11. (15) Ends Report, September 2010, Europe urged on towards 2050 carbon targets. (17) Ends Report, July 2010, UK to miss 2022 carbon targets, Committee on Climate Change report