Next Generation Science Standards:
Key Vocabulary: Fossil fuels, carbon dioxide, atmosphere, budget, gigatons, climate change, greenhouse gases
Desmos Activity: Calculating our carbon budget
Desmos Graph: https://www.desmos.com/calculator/1wlxmhneoh
Carbon is one of the most important elements on Earth. Many different processes use, release, and store carbon, allowing it to cycle through the atmosphere, rocks, ocean, and living things.
In the atmosphere, carbon exists as carbon dioxide (CO2), where it acts as a greenhouse gas trapping heat energy from the sun. Without carbon dioxide, the Earth would be much cooler than it is today. However, the burning of fossil fuels for energy has released too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, causing Earth’s temperatures to increase at a rate that is damaging to both ecosystems and people. To prevent the worse effects of climate change, researchers have found that global temperatures cannot increase more than 2°C, meaning only a limited amount of fossil fuels can be burned for energy.
In the pictures below, each grey block represents the one gigaton of carbon (1 gigaton = 1,000,000,000 tons). While is well over 2230 GT’s of carbon still trapped in the ground, only around 487 GT’s could be burned without exceeding our carbon budget – the amount of carbon needed to keep global temperatures from increasing by more than 2° C. However, the amount of carbon dioxide being put into the atmosphere has been steadily increasing over the past several decades. Many countries which were once developing now have thriving industries powered by fossil fuels. If we are to avoid the catastrophic consequences of a warmer planet, humans will have to quickly move to more renewable forms of energy.
The Gaurdian has a Carbon Countdown Clock that shows how much carbon has been put into the atmosphere and how much is left before we past the 2° C threshold.
Chris Heckman is a member of the Citizen’s Climate Lobby.