What’s the Problem with Carbon Emissions?

Last Updated:
Tue, 2018-07-10 13:14

In the beginning of his second term, President Obama shifted political focus back to climate change, touching on the issue in both his inaugural speech and the State of the Union address. As part of his commitment to tackling climate change, the President vowed to reduce carbon emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. Let’s take a look at the challenges he will face and possible plans for improvement.

Problems with Fossil Fuels

In order to understand the issue of carbon emissions, it is important to know the basic science behind the concerns. Carbon dioxide is naturally present in the earth’s atmosphere and is part of a natural circulation among the atmosphere, oceans, soil, plants, and animals. Human activity interferes with this natural biological cycle because we extract fossil fuels with high concentrations of carbon from deep below the earth’s surface and burn them for energy. During this combustion process, carbon mixes with oxygen and creates even more carbon dioxide than would have naturally been present in the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide is the primary gas emitted from human activity and the best-known greenhouse gas contributing to global warming. Every time we start a car, flip on a switch, or use anything associated with petroleum, coal, natural gas, or electricity, we emit carbon dioxide into the air.

The overabundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes more heat to be trapped, increasing temperatures that result in global warming.

Destruction of Carbon Sinks

It would be naïve to say that greenhouse gas emissions are the sole cause for extra heat trapped in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, our human contributions to this problem don’t stop there; when we destroy natural resources like forests, we remove the raw materials that help to absorb the emitted gases.

Carbon sinks are beneficial areas where more carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and stored in plants and trees than is emitted. Deforestation is causing the destruction of natural sinks, leaving less plant life to absorb carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, land use and forestry management allowed for a 15% offset of greenhouse gas emissions in 2010.

Political Challenges and the EPA

It seems unlikely in the current political climate that Congress will be able to come to an agreement on climate change legislation. Setting a national policy on greenhouse gas emissions will therefore prove a difficult, if not impossible, task. The Obama administration is expected to take action through EPA regulations under the Clean Air Act, effectively moving forward without Congress. The EPA has already used their authority under the Clean Air Act to issue strict carbon emission limits on future power plant development. Climate activists are now urging the agency to focus on existing power plants, which emit 40% of the nation’s carbon pollution in the production of electricity. If the EPA does propose strict regulations on existing plants, many utilities will likely oppose, and the regulations could get tied up in court.

The EPA is also hard at work trying to regulate air pollution from natural gas fracking, since natural gas plants are the most likely replacement for coal-fired power plants. Environmentalists favor natural gas over coal because of its cleaner burning properties, such that less carbon dioxide releases into the air. But, due to methane leaks that occur during natural gas extraction, the process generates some controversy. There is hope that the EPA, industry leaders, and environmentalists can find some common ground through methane recovery technology that captures the gas and makes it available for resale at a profit.

            EPA sources of carbon emissions

Doing Our Part

As the struggle to curb carbon emissions continues at both a global and national level, we cannot wait for Congress, or the EPA, to take care of the problem. We are faced with the challenge to reduce our own emissions. Based on the EPA data showing carbon emissions resulting from various aspects of daily habits and lifestyle, it makes sense to start evaluating transportation practices, energy use, purchasing choices, and proper handling of waste. Why not download a free green mobile app to kick off your own battle against carbon emissions?

By Amy Malloy

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