Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a colorless, odorless gas that animals produce and plants need. There are lots of natural sources of carbon dioxide, including respiration and the breakdown of organic matter, and until the last century or so the carbon cycle was pretty well balanced, with plants taking up carbon dioxide about as fast as animals and decomposition produced it, leading to pretty stable levels of it in the air. But as human demand for heat and energy grew, we started burning more wood and peat, and then more coal, and finally more and more petroleum and natural gas – all of which release carbon dioxide. Lots of carbon dioxide.
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How much is lots? Well, over the last, oh, 400,000 years or so, concentrations have ranged between about 180 parts per million (ppm) and a bit less than 300 ppm — and they hit that peak only 4 times…until about 1950, when ppm of carbon dioxide passed 300 and have been climbing rapidly ever since. As of the spring of 2017 the ppm is passing through 405.6, according to NASA.
So, what’s the big deal?
Carbon dioxide acts as very effective blanket. Light from the sun (a.k.a. solar radiation) mostly passes through carbon dioxide gas. But when that light gets changed into heat (a.k.a. thermal radiation), which happens when it hits clouds, water, or solid objects, some of the heat heads back up (radiates) into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is not nearly as transparent to heat as it is to light, so the more carbon dioxide in the air, the more heat gets trapped in the air rather than being released into space. This is known as the “greenhouse effect.”
For a simple, human-size example, think about how hot it gets inside a car with the windows closed on a cold but sunny day. The windows let a lot of light in but the heat goes back out more slowly, so the air in the car quickly gets lots warmer than it is outside. Carbon dioxide is like the glass in the car windows. Now trapping some heat in the atmosphere is a good thing, but the key is to keep letting out enough to keep things in balance. If more heat that gets trapped in the atmosphere than is lost, the average global air temperature goes up…and the average global air temperature has been rising steadily since about 1950. This effect is referred to as global warming.
While warmer temperatures may sound pleasant when you are shivering and shoveling snow in a winter blizzard, as the average global air temperature rises weather patterns change, creating stronger storms, longer and hotter heatwaves, and deeper droughts. Sea levels also rise (as glaciers and polar ice melts), increasing shoreline erosion and swamping low-lying cities. Changing climate can also lead to the extinction of plants and animals, and is already undermining human health by extending the area where tropical diseases are a threat. All-in-all, warmer average global air temperatures are already changing life as we know it and things will only get worse if we don’t change our behavior and turn the trend of rising carbon dioxide levels around.
Ack! What can we do?
Currently, burning fossil fuels accounts for an estimated 87% of the carbon dioxide released by human activity, so it makes sense to start by burning less fossil fuel.
With this in mind, people and companies have been talking about the size of their carbon footprints (or carbon emissions), and the desirability of shrinking or even eliminating them – referred to as becoming “carbon neutral” or having a “net zero carbon footprint” – for some time.
Slowing and reversing the trend
As we move forward we need to burn less fossil fuel, ensure what we do burn does more by increasing efficiency, and expand our use of sources of energy that don’t involve the release of carbon dioxide including solar, wind, tide, and geothermal. We can also replant forests and perennial grasslands where they have been lost, as both tie up (a.k.a. sequester) carbon in the form of living plants and organic matter. And, since the issue is a global one, it is also possible to finance projects somewhere else in the world as a way of balancing or “offsetting” your own carbon footprint.
Beyond carbon dioxide
While carbon dioxide is the most ubiquitous gas involved in the greenhouse effect, methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), perfluorocarbons (PFC), and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) all have similar or even stronger greenhouse effects. Together they are known as greenhouse gasses.
The term climate neutral takes carbon neutral to the next level by adding in concern about the other greenhouse gases.
Individuals and companies can tap into a wealth of helpful resources and organizations to help them seek out sustainability and move toward a carbon- or climate neutral future. One, the United Nations Climate Change secretariat, invites companies and governments to take the Climate Neutral Now Pledge and offers advice and assistance in creating a plan for corporate sustainability.
Nature’s Path is working toward Climate Neutrality
Nature’s path is working to reduce CO2 emissions per ton of product produced. In 2015 total direct CO2 emissions per pound of product fell 2.6% and 1.33% in 2016, and the amount of CO2 emitted through our transportation fell by 16.8% between 2015 and 2016. We’ve also purchased over 73,000 Renewable Energy Credits that support green energy projects in North America in 2013-2016. Nature’s Path was also certified as a Climate Smart Business in 2015, 2016, and 2017 and is continuing to work with Climate Smart, a social enterprise based in Vancouver, BC, which helps small and medium-sized enterprises address climate change and lead the transition to a prosperous, low-carbon future. We also recently joined the Organic Sustainable Community, the Sustainable Food Trade Association, the Climate Collaborative Project, and committed to all 9 commitment areas during Climate Day at Natural Products Expo West.
What can you do?
Do everything you can to reduce your carbon footprint and dependence on burning fossil fuels for heating, cooking, transportation, and electricity. Purchase the most efficient appliances, add insulation, buy your electricity from a green company if you have the option, and consider harnessing the sun to provide some of the heat for your home or water (the simplest and least expensive way to tap into solar). Carpool, take public transportation, or walk/bike whenever possible. Consider buying offset carbon credits if you choose to fly or to cover your daily commute. Buy local and support companies that are working toward carbon or climate neutrality. And be sure to respectfully remind all your elected representatives, on a regular basis, of how important stopping and reversing rising levels of greenhouse gasses is to you.