The Human Factor: Understanding the Sources of Rising Carbon Dioxide

Every time we get into our car, turn the key and drive somewhere, we burn gasoline, a fossil fuel derived from crude oil. The burning of the organic materials in fossil fuels produces energy and releases carbon dioxide and other compounds into Earth’s atmosphere. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide trap heat in our atmosphere, warming it and disturbing Earth’s climate.

Scientists agree that human activities have been the primary source for the observed rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide since the beginning of the fossil fuel era in the 1860s. Eighty-five percent of all human-produced carbon dioxide emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and oil, including gasoline. The remainder results from the clearing of forests and other land use, as well as some industrial processes such as cement manufacturing. The use of fossil fuels has grown rapidly, especially since the end of World War II and continues to increase exponentially. In fact, more than half of all fossil fuels ever used by humans have been consumed in just the last 20 years.

Human activities add a worldwide average of almost 1.4 metric tons of carbon per person per year to the atmosphere. Before industrialization, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million. By 1958, the concentration of carbon dioxide had increased to around 315 parts per million, and by 2007, it had risen to about 383 parts per million. These increases were due almost entirely to human activity.

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