Introduction

Anna is in a class where the teacher assigns homework every day but doesn’t check it until the end of the month. Unfortunately, it is halfway through the month, and Anna hasn’t done any of the homework. She has three options: she can start doing all her homework and do her best to catch up, she can hope that her teacher stops assigning homework every night, or she can continue not doing her homework and get in trouble later.

Explanation

Carbon neutrality works similarly: it is based upon the fact that excess carbon in the atmosphere builds up until it has caused irreparable damage to our planet. Anna’s teacher probably won’t stop assigning her homework, but as a planet, we can stop adding carbon to our atmosphere. We can also work to remove the existing carbon in our atmosphere and reduce the damage through carbon removal. In both Anna’s case and our own, doing nothing will result in a lot of trouble. The carbon will continue to build up and heat the planet. This temperature increase will result in damaged ecosystems, rising ocean levels, and unusual and dangerous weather conditions.

Definition

Carbon neutrality means achieving net-zero carbon emissions, which is an equal balance between the amount of carbon emissions humans put into the atmosphere with the amount of carbon that is absorbed from the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a naturally occurring gas that is present in the Earth’s atmosphere, but it also acts as a greenhouse gas: a gas that exists in the atmosphere and traps heat. Since the heat can no longer escape, it is directed back at Earth. With enough greenhouse gas emissions, that heat will cause significant changes in Earth’s temperature. By burning fossil fuels, big companies and individuals release greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and contribute to the rising global temperature. Carbon neutrality aims to slow, if not stop, that rise in temperature.

How It Works

CO2 is just one of many greenhouse gases. Still, it is one of the most long-lived, sticking around in the atmosphere for thousands of years and impacting our planet far into the future, which is why people are so worried about limiting carbon emissions quickly. One method of achieving carbon neutrality is through carbon offsetting. Carbon offsetting is a process where companies or even individuals purchase carbon offsets, investing in companies that will take that money and use it in a project meant to reduce carbon emissions. These projects can range from wind turbines to energy-efficient buildings. So if someone was going on a plane trip, they might pay to offset the carbon emissions of their plane ride, and their money will go toward supporting a clean energy project. This action reduces their carbon footprint, or the total greenhouse gas emissions that they cause. 

Another strategy for reaching carbon neutrality is to reduce carbon emissions dramatically. While carbon offsets can help to balance the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, they are meant to be a secondary action, used only when a company or country cannot further reduce their carbon emissions at the time. Instead of using non-renewable energy sources like gas and oil, many scientists advocate for renewable energy and reducing energy usage in general. Switching to solar, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric power are all examples of ways in which companies can reduce carbon emissions. Using less energy, such as by shutting down toxic factories, also helps the environment. This change will reduce carbon emissions as well as save money. 

However, while walking, biking, and using public transportation are all cheap and sustainable methods of travel, focusing only on the actions of individuals allows big companies and governments to escape scrutiny. As they are the ones emitting the most carbon into the air, it is essential to make sure they are doing their part for the environment. This work can come in the form of complying with international and local regulations, as well as taking the initiative to emit as little carbon as possible, no matter how high the cap on emissions is.

For decades, scientists have warned about keeping the global temperature rise under two degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st Century to avoid the worst effects of increased temperatures. However, recent reconsiderations have shown that 1.5 degrees is the safer limit, especially for preventing sea levels from getting too high. This limit will be difficult to keep to, especially since the world already hit the one-degree mark in late 2015. However, there are numerous international agreements where countries have set limits on their greenhouse gas emissions, like the Paris Accord. Two countries, Bhutan and Suriname, are already carbon negative, meaning that they absorb more carbon than they emit. Many other countries have committed to becoming carbon neutral by a specific date, often 2050. There is a lot of work to be done, but the world is becoming more aware of the dangers of carbon emissions and more active in reducing our carbon footprint.

Why Care?

When people think about environmentalism, they often think of melting ice caps and polar bears. While those issues are genuine, some issues hit closer to home for many people. Toxic facilities, like coal-fired power plants and incinerators, emit toxic chemicals into the lungs, soil, and water of nearby communities, as well as emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. These issues disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income communities globally. The United Nations has identified three main ways that this inequality occurs: first, there is often an increased risk of exposure to the harmful effects of climate change in these communities. Second, there is an increase in the susceptibility to damage caused by climate change, and third, there is a decreased ability to recover from the damage. Carbon neutrality is one of the most critical goals in preserving our planet, as well as ensuring that all people can live safely and securely.

    Learn More

    1. McGrath, Matt. “What Does 1.5C Mean in a Warming World?” BBC News, 2 Oct. 2018. www.bbc.com, https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-45678338.
    2. Ritchie, Hannah, and Max Roser. “CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Our World in Data, May 2017. ourworldindata.org, https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions.
    3. Summary for Policymakers — Global Warming of 1.5 oC. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2018. www.ipcc.ch, https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/.
    4. “What Is ‘Carbon Neutrality’ – and How Can We Achieve It by 2050?” The Elders, 22 May 2014. www.theelders.org, https://www.theelders.org/news/what-carbon-neutrality-%E2%80%93-and-how-can-we-achieve-it-2050.
    5. Winkel, John, and S. Nazrul Islam. Climate Change and Social Inequality. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Oct. 2017, https://www.un.org/esa/desa/papers/2017/wp152_2017.pdf.

    Think Further

    1. Either in your community or your country as a whole, what are some laws and policies you think might be useful in reducing carbon emissions?
    2. Can you think of any examples of cities that have faced the harmful effects of climate change, and especially the effects of carbon emissions? What were the harmful effects?
    3. What actions can you take to reduce your carbon footprint?

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