Above: Coal burning power plant (image © istockphoto.com/acilo)

Did you know? The concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in Earth's atmosphere has increased from about 280 parts per million (ppm) in pre-industrial times to 400 ppm in May 2013.What do eating breakfast, taking the bus to school, and playing video games all have in common? They cause the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs). In fact, almost every product or service you consume requires at least some energy. Much of this energy is produced by burning fossil fuels, including the gas or electricity that cooks your breakfast, the gasoline or diesel that fuels your school bus, and the electricity that powers your game console.

Producing energy by burning fossil fuels emits GHGs. GHGs in Earth's atmosphere trap heat and contribute to climate change. And according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a changing climate could have a devastating impact on animal habitat, agriculture, biodiversity, ocean health, sea levels, water resources, and many other areas.

The most abundant GHG emitted by human activities is carbon dioxide (CO2). For this reason, it is the most important GHG to reduce, control, and manage.

How much GHG goes into the atmosphere?

Did you know? The energy sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. When it comes to GHGs, "how much?" is the really important question. The more GHGs in the atmosphere, the greater the expected climate change. The average Canadian produces the equivalent of 20.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, or about the weight of four adult African elephants! Globally, 32,000 million tonnes of CO2 are released each year from burning fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, and coal.

If GHG are harmful to Earth’s climate, why not stop burning fossil fuels?

Did you know? The Conference board of Canada gave the country a "D" grade for its greenhouse gas emissions in 2013. Unfortunately, fossil fuels remain abundant and a relatively inexpensive source of energy when compared to cleaner, alternative sources such as wind and solar. As a result, we’ll probably continue to exploit fossil fuels for energy and generate large amounts of GHG for the foreseeable future.

Are there any solutions?

Solutions don’t come easy when it comes to problems as big as global GHG emissions. In addition to reducing the absolute volume of emissions, one potential solution involves capturing and storing CO2 to prevent its accumulation in the atmosphere. This is called CO2 sequestration. Several technologies are being studied, including storing CO2 deep below the surface, converting it into a different form, and increasing the Earth's natural ability to store CO2.

A small mineral (coloured in red) that has locked away CO2 in its crystal form. Click image to enlarge (Ian Power)

Did you know? Up to 600 million tonnes of CO2 per year could be stored deep underground in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin. That’s about 75% of Canada’s current annual greenhouse gas emissions.The image on the left shows a small mineral (coloured in red) that has locked away CO2 in its crystal form. The width of the mineral is less than the thickness of a human hair. This is just one way of storing CO2.

Economic incentives could also help encourage the development and implementation of new technologies by making its more expensive for people and industry to pollute the atmosphere.

How can I help protect Earth's climate?

You can reduce your carbon footprint (the amount of GHG emissions you personally cause) by choosing environmentally sound products, reducing your energy consumption, minimizing waste, and supporting environmental initiatives. Most importantly, people need to educate themselves about how their actions affect the environment. Knowledge empowers you and enables you to take action!

References

Carbon Management Canada

Climate Change (Environment Canada) Details and Analysis: Environment (Conference Board of Canada) Energy Sector (Natural Resources Canada) Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data (US Environmental Protection Agency) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Stanford Center for Carbon Storage Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide (Earth System Research Laboratory)

Ian Power


Ian is a postdoctoral fellow in geochemistry and geomicrobiology at The University of British Columbia.  Ian has a passion for scientific discovery, searching for solutions to environmental problems.  He studies biological and geochemical reactions for developing technologies that store carbon dioxide.  Ian enjoys the outdoors, hockey, and spending time with his wife, family and friends.





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