CO₂ is the "villain" in the climate debate. This is greenhouse gas number 1, and with its emissions, we humans have significantly influenced the climate on our Earth. Scientific graphs don't lie; since we started emitting CO₂ on a large scale, the Earth's temperature has risen enormously. But what is CO₂ again, how is it related to warming the Earth, and how should we deal with our CO₂ emissions? In this article, you'll find a recap of all this, and we'll outline the differences between CO₂ reduction and CO₂ compensation for you.
What is CO₂?
CO₂ stands for carbon dioxide. It's a colorless, odorless, and non-toxic gas that naturally exists in the atmosphere. The gas consists of one carbon atom (C) and two oxygen atoms (O), hence the name "di" (2)-oxide.
CO₂ plays an essential role in Earth's carbon cycle. The gas is released in several natural processes, such as human and animal respiration, as well as volcanic eruptions or forest fires. CO₂ is then absorbed by plants and trees, which convert it into oxygen. This process is called photosynthesis. This is how the Earth maintains the balance of CO₂, the cycle is referred to as the natural carbon cycle.
Disrupted balance between CO₂ emissions and absorption
Previously, the amount of CO₂ in the atmosphere remained more or less balanced; the natural carbon cycle kept the CO₂ released roughly in balance with the CO₂ absorbed. But this balance has been disrupted. Since the Industrial Revolution, we humans have been emitting much more CO₂. Primarily by burning fossil fuels (such as coal, oil, and natural gas) for energy. A lot of CO₂ has also been released due to deforestation (for wood fuel or changing land use). The equilibrium in the carbon cycle has been disturbed: we now have 40 percent more CO₂ in the atmosphere than 250 years ago (1).
In Figure 1, you can see the development of the CO₂ concentration in the atmosphere, back from 804,000 years BC to the present. Scientists can measure past concentrations by drilling deep holes in ice layers or by taking measurements in wood. CO₂ can be trapped in air bubbles deep within ice and in the cores of wood (dead and living trees) for thousands of years. By connecting all these measurements, we can look back more than 800,000 years in time.
CO₂: standard unit for greenhouse gases
CO₂ is a greenhouse gas, just like methane and nitrous oxide. Internationally, CO₂ is the chosen "standard measure" in which we express other greenhouse gases, comparing how much stronger/weaker they are than CO₂. The strength of a greenhouse gas is assessed based on various characteristics, such as how long the gas remains in the atmosphere before reacting or decaying, or how much energy it can absorb.
This strength is then expressed in a measure called "CO₂ equivalents." One kilogram of CO₂ emissions has a strength of one kg CO₂ equivalent. Methane is a stronger greenhouse gas than CO₂; the effect of emitting one kilogram of methane is equivalent to emitting a whopping 28 kilograms of CO₂ (!). Thus, one kilogram of methane has a strength of 28 kg CO₂-eq. Below is a list of some of the most important greenhouse gases and their corresponding CO₂ equivalents.
The Enhanced Greenhouse Effect
Sunlight that reaches the Earth is partially absorbed by the Earth's surface. The rest is reflected back into space and exits our planetary system through the atmosphere. However, the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere hinder this reflection; the heat can no longer escape (completely), and therefore remains trapped inside the atmosphere. This effect is called the greenhouse effect; sunlight and heat enter the Earth, but cannot escape, progressively warming the Earth and the atmosphere (1). Just like what happens in a greenhouse.
We owe much to this greenhouse effect; without it, the average temperature on our planet would be around -18 degrees Celsius. However, due to all the additional greenhouse gases we emit and the following disruption of the carbon cycle, we are currently experiencing an enhanced greenhouse effect. This leads to a significant increase in average temperature, with all its consequential impacts.
For instance melting ice caps, rising sea levels, increasingly extreme weather conditions, shifts in ecosystems, and changes in living conditions for plants and animals. Ecosystems are under pressure, biodiversity is decreasing, and animal and plant species are facing the threat of extinction. Furthermore, if certain threshold values are surpassed, in many cases the damage becomes irreversible.
So, now what?
Having such a significant concentration of CO₂ in the atmosphere is highly undesirable. The CO₂ level is already alarmingly high and scientists worldwide are warning about the disastrous consequences if this level continues to rise. The only right course of action is to, immediately and drastically, reduce CO₂ emissions. Additionally, we need to work towards lowering the current CO₂ concentration in the atmosphere.
CO₂ footprint as a measuring unit
The less CO₂ we emit, the better. This is where it all begins. But where do these CO₂ emissions come from? CO₂ is released during the combustion of fossil fuels, such as in transportation (gasoline, kerosene), during the production of various products we use in our daily lives, and when heating (using gas) our homes or offices. The agriculture industry, particularly livestock farming, is also a significant source of CO₂ (and other greenhouse gas) emissions.
Understanding how much CO₂ emissions you, as an individual or a company, produce can help you reduce this impact. You can calculate your CO₂ emissions using a carbon footprint. This is a useful unit of measurement to describe your environmental impact. A carbon footprint is the sum of all greenhouse gas emissions, expressed in CO₂ equivalents. You can calculate your carbon footprint for a self-selected period, such as your impact per month or per year.
CO₂ reduction for businesses
As a company, you may have a significant carbon footprint. Consider, for instance, all the fossil fuels you use for transportation or the energy required to power your office or machinery. In many cases, a company's carbon footprint is on an entirely different scale than that of an individual or a household.
Therefore, there is an enormous potential for environmental improvement for businesses. The business sector can play a key role in sustainability of our societies. By reducing the carbon footprint of your products or services, your organization can enable consumers and other businesses to also reduce their own footprint by buying from you.
Of course, we're not suggesting that the sustainable behavior of individuals is any less important than that of businesses. In fact, individuals and consumers also play a key role in it all. They can influence organizations with their preferences and purchasing behavior. Simply put, the journey to sustainability is one we must embark on together.
If you're looking to establish a CO₂ reduction strategy, we recommend starting by calculating your carbon footprint. Our mantra is: "You can't manage what you don't measure." Only by understanding your impact, you can work to reduce it.
We follow this approach:
- Calculate your carbon footprint.
- Develop a CO₂ reduction strategy.
- Provide guidance in executing this CO₂ reduction strategy if needed.
Find here some initial tips on how to decrease the emissions of your organization.
But can't you just offset your CO₂ emissions? Why bother reducing emissions, if you can simply continue your business-as-usal, and compensate for the CO₂?
Because CO₂ compensation, by itself, is not a solution to climate change. As long as new CO₂ is emitted, climate change continues. The real solution lies in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and eventually completely phasing out fossil fuels.
There are several considerations to keep in mind regarding CO₂ compensation:
- A common form of CO₂ compensation involves planting trees. However, there is a significant delay between current emissions and future compensation. It takes several years before a young tree can absorb an effective amount of CO₂. During this time, the atmospheric CO₂ concentration still continues to rise, leading to all its associated consequences.
- Additionally, the time duration of CO₂ storage in fossil fuels is not the same as in trees. CO₂ in fossil fuels was trapped underground for centuries, until they were burned (in factories and transportation), releasing CO₂ into the atmosphere. Trees store CO₂ for a much shorter period, often a decade or so, until they fall or are cut down, and release the stored CO₂ again. The storage cycle for these two materials is significantly different, making a direct comparison between them complex.
- There simply isn't enough space on our planet to plant the number of trees required to fully offset our global emissions. So there is a limit to how much CO₂ we can compensate for in this manner.
- Then there's the voluntary carbon credit market. Companies can voluntarily offset their emissions by purchasing carbon credits, investing in nature projects aimed at capturing CO₂. Examples include preventing deforestation in the Amazon or large-scale reforestation projects in Zimbabwe. The purchase of such credits is supposed to align with the amount of CO₂ a company emits. However, recent developments have shown that standards used to evaluate these projects, such as Verra and Gold Standard, significantly overestimate the CO₂ offset provided by these projects. In reality, the projects don't contribute much to reducing atmospheric CO₂. This misrepresentation leads companies to believe they are becoming more sustainable while they continue to emit the same amount. Meanwhile, the intermediaries profit considerably. According to some experts, this system might even worsen the climate crisis. Aside from the complexity of accurately determining how much CO₂ is truly absorbed by these compensation projects, other criteria such as social impact and biodiversity are often not adequately considered.
- Many organizations are entering this promising new industry, aiming to sell as many credits as possible under false claims. This doesn't mean all compensation initiatives are doomed from the start. However, there are significant flaws in the current system of trading carbon credits and overseeing it. Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive international regulation yet for voluntary carbon credits that ensures their claims are met.To learn more about various scientists' viewpoints on CO₂ compensation, you can read this article from The Guardian.
But, CO₂ compensation can be a valuable addition to CO₂ reduction:
- On one hand, an organization has been emitting greenhouse gases as long as it has existed. It doesn't hurt to alleviate this historical "burden" a little by compensating through CO₂ compensation projects. However, it's crucial for an organization to carefully select a compensation partner; a partner that truly delivers on their promises of compensation.
-Furthermore, companies often set deadlines of 2030 or even 2050 to reduce their emissions. CO₂ compensation can serve as a temporary complement to these efforts, helping to mitigate the impact in the meantime.
-Even if a company does want to immediately reduce its CO₂ emissions, such reduction rarely takes effect immediately. It takes time for the effects of reduction measures to become visible. Implementation of these measures itself takes time due to organizational or financial reasons.
-Sometimes there are technological limitations or no carbon-neutral solutions available yet. Until such measures take full effect, compensation can serve as a viable interim solution.
Currently, there is a strong focus on finding alterrnative and innovative ways to remove CO₂ from the atmosphere. This includes methods like storing CO₂ underground or in the ocean (did you know that oceans play a crucial role in CO₂ storage?), as well as using filters to capture CO₂ from the air and convert it into rock. However, these solutions are still underdeveloped and/or financially costly at the moment, which is why they cannot be widely applied on a large scale.
Greenwashing or genuine sustainability?
If you only compensate for your CO₂ emissions without reducing them, you're not truly practicing sustainability. Companies often face criticism for making unsubstantiated claims about their climate or CO₂ neutrality. This can involve promises of impact compensation, or downplaying the actual extent of their organizational impact. Such actions deceive customers and consumers.
This phenomenon is known as greenwashing: omitting information, making misleading promises, exaggerating, or outright lying about your eco-friendly actions. Society and the media are becoming increasingly vigilant and critical of greenwashing. Accusations of greenwashing can significantly harm your reputation and credibility. Customers and consumers are placing more importance on sustainability, and are increasingly evaluating brands and organizations based on this criterion. However, they are looking for genuine sustainability; deceptive claims
do more harm than good.
If you're interested in reducing your organization's carbon footprint and compensating where necessary, please reach out to us. We're here to offer advice on how to approach this.
We developed a powerfull tool for businesses, to measure their carbon footprint. Start minimising your impact with our Business Carbon Calculator.