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What Are Carbon Emissions?

Carbon emissions have been rising steadily since the eighteenth century, a trend that has accelerated over the past 60 years. Carbon dioxide levels now outpace those of the most recent ice age, and show no signs of slowing down. In fact, CO2 levels are projected to increase by 5 percent in 2050. 

This excess CO2 has caused our climate to warm, creating new challenges for the environment, animals, and humans. There is reason to hope, however. Nonprofits, industries, and businesses—including ProjectBlu—are making strides in reducing their carbon footprints.

What Are Carbon Emissions? A Basic Overview

It may seem counterintuitive, but all life on Earth depends on carbon. This flexible element readily interacts with other elements to form enzymes, DNA, fats, and other compounds that make life possible.

Carbon combines with oxygen to form carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the greenhouse gasses that comprise our atmosphere. CO2 makes up just .04 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere, but is adept at trapping heat and influencing the climate.

How CO2 Enters the Atmosphere

There are two ways that CO2 enters the atmosphere: 

By Natural Activities

Nature’s carbon cycle is a model of efficiency. Animals and humans exhale CO2. Plants and trees use this CO2—with help from the sun—to produce their food, and in return, emit oxygen back into the atmosphere which we then inhale. A similar cycle occurs in the ocean, which holds about 50 times more CO2.

Natural wildfires emit CO2 gas and can influence the climate, as can volcanoes that have erupted. In 1980, Mount St. Helens in Washington emitted about 10 million tons of CO2 within a 9-hour period. That’s a lot of CO2, but put into perspective, humans pump out the same amount in just 2.5 hours.

By Human Activities

Burning, extracting, and refining the fossil fuels (like oil and gas) that power our cars, heat our homes, and produce our building materials and consumer products, introduces additional CO2 into the atmosphere. Most U.S. carbon emissions are generated from the transportation (35 percent), electricity (31 percent), and industrial (16 percent) sectors.

Deforestation exacerbates the problem by eliminating the trees that absorb this excess carbon. A single tree can hold a half ton of CO2 during its 100-year lifetime, says Mindy Crowell, reforestation partnerships director at Missoula, Montana-based National Forest Foundation

“Forests in the U.S. offset about 16 percent of greenhouse gas emissions emitted from cars, trucks, power plants, and other sources in the United States,” she says. “Forest ecosystems are the largest land-based carbon sink, or storage of carbon, on Earth.”

Why Are Carbon Emissions a Problem?

Forest trees

CO2 traps solar radiation near the Earth. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact without the warmth, our oceans would be frozen and life couldn’t survive.

But emitting too much CO2 into the atmosphere at an accelerated pace—while also destroying the trees that absorb the excess—disrupts nature’s balance and results in rising temperatures.  

Our warmer climate has presented the environment, wildlife, and humans with a number of unprecedented problems. Here are just a few.

Impacts on Wildlife and the Environment

Data indicates that some bird species are migrating sooner in the spring in response to earlier plant blooms. Species unable to adapt face an uncertain future.

When ocean temperatures warm, coral expel zooxanthellae, a type of algae that gives them their lustrous colors and provides them with an essential food source, says Dr. Helen Fox, conservation science director at the Coral Reef Alliance based in Oakland, California. 

“Without their zooxanthellae, corals lose that important food source and are more vulnerable to diseases and other stressors. If this lasts longer than about six weeks, the corals can die.” 

Coral reef bleaching events are becoming more widespread and severe, she says. “In 2017, about two-thirds of the corals in the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef were lost to bleaching. If we don’t act quickly to reduce our emissions and curb climate change, we could lose most of the world’s coral reefs.” 

Warmer temperatures also melt the ice that some animal species, most iconically the Polar Bear, depend on for mobility, to hunt for food, and raise their young.  

Impacts on Human Health and Wellbeing

As spring weather continues to arrive earlier and fall begins later, there’s more pollen in the environment, leading to longer allergy seasons. This may seem like a minor inconvenience, but seasonal allergy sufferers would likely say otherwise!   

Disease-carrying parasites flourish in warmer weather, including mosquitoes that can carry West Nile virus and ticks that can transmit Lyme disease. Excess mosquitoes can also pose a heartworm risk to our pets. 

Excessive heat and drought also impact crops like corn, soybeans, and rice. Farms with limited water resources will have difficulty mitigating the damage. 

An Increase in Natural Disasters

Erratic weather patterns lead to more frequent thunderstorms, increasing the likelihood of flash floods.

Western portions of the U.S. are already experiencing an uptick in forest fires. They’ve resulted in the displacement, injury, and death of people and wildlife and the destruction of wild habitat.

Rising oceans lead to flooding and coastal erosion. In the U.S., about 40 percent of the population lives near coastal areas.

How Will Carbon Emissions Impact the Future? 

In 2100 we can expect the average temperature to increase between 2 and 10 degrees. The precise number depends on our ability to preserve forests and burn fewer fossil fuels. 

At the current rate, however, carbon emissions are on track to grow by 0.6 percent per year until 2050

Understanding Carbon Emissions Around the World

Pollution in China

Most of the world’s carbon emissions currently originate from 6 regions. Countries that generate the most carbon tend to already be industrialized, have an emerging economy, and are highly populated. 

Most of these nations not only generate the most overall CO2, but also have a higher emission rate per person

 Country Percent of CO2 Emitted
China 30%
United States 15%
European Union (including U.K.) 9%
India 7%
Russian Federation 5%
Japan 4%

This list has not remained static through time.

Britain was the first country to introduce CO2 into the atmosphere at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-eighteenth century. The U.S. followed suit, with France, Germany, and Belgium trailing behind. At this point we had collectively emitted 0.01 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

U.S. carbon emissions started growing and forged past the U.K. in 1872, and remained the world’s top CO2 contributor until 2005. China carbon emissions began to grow as it expanded its economy in the 1970s, surpassing the U.S. in 2011 to become the world’s top contributor of carbon emissions. Global carbon emissions are currently estimated at 34 billion tons annually.

CO2 emissions dip slightly and temporarily during times of wars, financial crises, and most recently, the COVID pandemic. Global carbon emissions fell by 6.4 percent in 2020, as pandemic lockdowns created a reduced market for travel and social activities.

How to Reduce Carbon Emissions

Person planting tree

The industrial sector, smaller-sized businesses, and nonprofit organizations are all taking steps to stem the tide of carbon emissions. They’re doing this in two primary ways: by reducing dependence on fossil fuels and offsetting the human-generated CO2 currently in the atmosphere. 

How Industries are Reducing Carbon Emissions

If you’ve shopped for home appliances, you might have seen the Energy Star seal, a U.S. government-backed label that signifies a product has been designed to save energy and be cost-effective. 

Similarly, construction companies can apply for energy efficiency certifications, like the Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) rating system, administered through the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED certification signifies a builder has satisfied certain criteria, like relying on sustainable materials and improving water efficiency.

Renewable Energy is Slowly Replacing Fossil Fuels

More than 3 percent of U.S. electricity is solar-generated, with about 1 in 7 U.S. homes projected to have a rooftop solar system by 2030. Placing solar panels on land the approximate size of Lake Michigan could power the entire U.S. with electricity, scientists estimate. 

Previous drawbacks to solar were accessibility and cost, but the technology has become more widely available, and since 2014 the cost has dropped by about 70 percent. 

Wind energy generates about 8 percent of U.S. electricity, outpacing solar. While it reportedly emits less CO2 and consumes less energy than solar, a major drawback is the collisions bats and birds have with the wind turbines. Between 140 thousand and half a million birds are killed annually from these encounters, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates. The National Audubon Society says these deaths can be minimized in part, by placing turbines in low impact areas. 

Engineers are Designing Carbon Capture Technology

Capturing CO2 during production and before it can enter the atmosphere has the potential to reduce emissions. The technology (still in its relative infancy) has had a slow start, however, largely due to high operation costs, challenges with safely transporting the CO2 after capture, and tepid public support. 

Businesses are Making Recycling More Accessible

Offices, restaurants, and stores have the right idea by displaying recycling bins. It takes less energy to manufacture a product from recycled materials than from raw ones. While the system has potential, it currently has flaws, and in fact 91 percent of plastic is not recycled adequately.

Consumer Goods Manufacturers are Using Alternative Materials

Instead of relying on the carbon-intensive process of manufacturing new materials, companies like Project Blu source ocean-bound plastic, recycled clothing, and discarded fishing nets to create its eco-chic, fabric-based pet products. This helps keep plastic out of the ocean. Additionally, we use innovative vegan leather made from apple skins and recycled leather for our leashes and collars—reducing the carbon emissions and deforestation created by the leather industry.

We also design our products to last longer. The result? Less carbon in the atmosphere and products your pet will love for years to come.

Other consumer goods companies are also showing the same commitment to sustainability. Brands like Girlfriend Collective, Rothy’s, Patagonia, Adidas, and more are all pushing the envelope when it comes to alternative, eco-friendly materials and manufacturing processes that limit carbon emissions.  

Companies are Offsetting Their Carbon Use

They’re finding their own solutions or working with a nonprofit like Carbonfund.org Foundation. Through its Carbonfree® Partner Program, they offer businesses (they currently have around 2,000 business partners) options for offsetting their carbon emissions. 

A company that ships products, for example, calculates the carbon emitted from their shipping processes, then offsets it by investing in a Carbonfund.org forestry, energy efficiency, or renewable energy initiative.   

Nonprofit Organizations are Planting Trees

Given that trees absorb CO2, preserving forests is a priority. National Forest Foundation is one of the nonprofits leading the way in this initiative. Since starting its 50 Million for Our Forests tree planting campaign in 2018, the Foundation has planted 14.4 million trees, says Crowell. 

“In 2021, NFF has committed to planting over 8 million trees, including 2.5 million delayed from 2020 due to COVID-19 impacts.” 

How Can You Reduce Your Carbon Footprint?

Dog lying on bed with leash

Driving a hybrid car, bussing it to work, replacing energy-guzzling appliances, and flipping light switches off when leaving a room are all great options for reducing carbon emissions. Here are a few more ideas to consider.

Start by Determining Your Carbon Footprint

“Understanding your impact is an important way to comprehend how your personal behavior affects climate change,” says Dustin Zimmer, marketing & communications manager at Carbonfund.org Foundation, based in East Aurora, New York. Using a carbon footprint calculator makes this process easier.

Reduce Your Dependence on Plastic

Plastics production is one of the most carbon-intensive industries in the manufacturing sector. Emissions from plastics in 2015 generated about 1.8 billion tons of CO2 and is expected to grow as the demand for plastics increases. Recycling is a useful tool, but with more than 91 percent of plastic currently not being recycled, it’s not a cure-all solution.

Support Sustainable Businesses

Show your loyalty to companies that are committed to the planet. Look for those that invest in conservation projects, use alternative materials to manufacture their wares, or offset their own carbon emissions. 

Since 2019, Project Blu has converted more than six million plastic bottles that were destined for the ocean into stylish and sustainable pet products. We also make a donation for every ProjectBlu product sold to Plastic Bank. This organization builds recycling facilities where people from some of the world’s poorest regions return plastic in exchange for cash, healthcare, and other valuable products.

Our vegan leather and recycled leather products also help to reduce deforestation. 

Shopping with companies that put sustainability at the forefront of their business practices help support eco-friendly practices while encouraging other companies to make important changes based on consumer behavior. 

Plant Trees

Planting trees is critical to fighting future climate change, says Zimmer. “You cannot plant trees today or tomorrow to neutralize carbon emissions that have already occurred from product shipments and general business operations.”

Start planting now for the future. Consider planting trees on your property or joining with others. “Check with your city about urban plantings,” recommends Crowell. “Sometimes cities need help watering planted trees in town. Reach out to local conservation and environmental groups, often they will host volunteer events, such as clean ups, trail maintenance, and tree plantings.”

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