05 April 2011
Can we capture all of the world’s carbon emissions?
In 2011, the world will emit more than 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Every day of the year, almost a hundred million tons will be released into the atmosphere. Every second more than a thousand tons - two million pounds - of carbon dioxide is emitted from power plants, cars, trucks, ships, planes, factories, and farms around the world.The average citizen of the world will account for the release of four and a half tons – 9,000 pounds – of CO2 this year. The average American will be responsible for four times as much, almost 18 tons, or 36,000 pounds of carbon dioxide this year, roughly a hundred pounds of carbon dioxide emissions for every day of the year.
While humans emit far less carbon dioxide than nature, the amount we emit exceeds the capacity of plants and oceans to absorb on top of the amount they’re already absorbing from natural sources. As a result, most of the carbon dioxide we emit remains in the atmosphere. Year over year, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 creeps up. It will rise only half a percent in 2011, a seemingly tiny change. Yet tiny changes add up. Over the 50 years since 1960, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen nearly 25%. Since the start of the industrial revolution it has risen by 45%, putting it at a level not seen in millions of years.
On current course and speed, by 2050 atmospheric CO2 levels will rise by another third from their already record high levels, making CO2 twice as plentiful in the atmosphere than at any point during the lifetime of our species.
Without reversal or mitigation, the continued pumping of CO2 into our atmosphere will eventually warm the planet to the extent that catastrophic changes ensue. The only serious debate at this point is just how quickly those catastrophic changes will occur, and which regions will see them in what forms.
To avoid those changes, we need to keep the level of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere at a manageable level. It’s unlikely this can be above 450 parts per million in the atmosphere. To stabilize at those levels, carbon dioxide emissions in 2050 will need to be less than half of what they are today, and less than one quarter of the levels they’re on track for if we continue with business as usual. Compare the bottom blue line in the graphic below, which depicts the necessary levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and carbon emissions to achieve them, with the top red line, which depicts something close to business as usual. (Note that in the bottom graph, emissions are listed in billions of tons of carbon rather than billions of tons of CO2. Multiply tons of carbon by 3.67 to get tons of CO2.) IEET