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Decoding the C-word: what is carbon dioxide and why should I care?

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In discussions about climate change, it’s the second most-used C-word, outranked only by the word ‘climate’ itself. 

We are, of course, referring to carbon, the shortened version of carbon dioxide (CO2). For a colourless, odourless gas, CO2 is utterly pervasive when it comes to climate change chat, but it can be hard to get your head around.

The basics first and foremost: what is carbon dioxide, and why does it matter to climate change? Carbon itself is a chemical element which combines with other elements to form molecules. This creates carbon-based molecules, one of which is carbon dioxide (one carbon and two oxygen atoms). Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, an important one too because it absorbs and radiates heat, helping to maintain our planet at its normal temperature and making it habitable.

Over time, humans began to use their smarts to do things that compromised our habitable world. We can pinpoint the start of this as the Industrial Revolution. This period proved advantageous for the advancement of society, less so for the environment. Through activities like burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), deforestation and unsustainable agriculture practices, humans added millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, causing a global warming effect and changing our climate.

Carbon footprint

Everything you do and everything you buy creates a carbon footprint, and it helps to know if the companies you are supporting are accumulating a particularly folklore-sized footprint.

The term carbon footprint describes the amount of greenhouse gas emissions (including carbon dioxide and methane) generated from all our daily activities. It can measure a single person, family, household, event, organisation, business, product, entire nation – any size really.

Carbon offsetting

Critics often compare carbon offsetting with the church’s use of confession – commit your carbon sin and repent by offsetting it elsewhere.

Carbon offsetting offers businesses and individuals a way to balance their carbon contribution by “offsetting” the emissions through a range of environmental schemes like tree planting or clean energy projects. But offsetting shouldn’t be treated as an excuse to keep emitting: businesses should offset and reduce.

Carbon offsetting also raises an important question: who is responsible for the cost? Contrast the scenario where an airline has to reduce and then offset all their emissions as a cost of being in business with an airline that asks its customers if they want to pay to offset their own emissions. The latter approach relies on each of us doing it, so only those who can afford it will. The former approach means the airline reduces and then offsets to zero. One approach solves climate change; the other doesn’t.

Carbon neutral

The breakeven option for carbon activity.

The goal here is to achieve “net zero emissions”. This works by calculating the greenhouse gas emissions going into the atmosphere after the company have done everything they can to reduce their emissions, then paying to offset the remaining emissions. This brings the company’s carbon emissions to zero, at which point they are carbon neutral.

Carbon negative

Will also answer to climate-positive or carbon positive.

Carbon negative is a level up from offsetting and neutrality, going beyond net-zero emissions and removing additional CO2 from the atmosphere. There are some pretty huge corporations pledging their allegiance to carbon negativity, including Microsoft and IKEA. Both the tech giant and global furniture retailer have given themselves the next ten years to go carbon negative and overhaul their operations to be more sustainable. Companies that have committed to do this by 2030 are the ones we like to hero because they have recognised this is the decade when massive change needs to happen to solve climate change.

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