Sustainability made simple

Carbon Emissions in the US: What We Have to Change

Carbon Emissions
CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash – Thijs Stoop

Carbon emissions in the US have hardly changed in the last 30 years. However, the negative effects of greenhouse gases on the climate are now undeniable. So what can we do to finally change things and reduce carbon emissions?

The ongoing, life-threatening increases in global temperatures – and the effects of climate change we see in the weather and on the news every day – are caused primarily by greenhouse gases. And carbon emissions are by far the largest contributor to this process. The more carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere, the worse climate change is going to get.

But how does this process actually work? What are the main sources of carbon emissions here in the US? And most importantly: What has to change?

What Are Carbon Emissions?

Sunlight Photosynthesis
Sunlight is the source of all the world’s energy – even fossil fuels. (CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash – Juliandra Durkin)

Carbon emissions are, specifically, emissions of carbon dioxide: They are released into the atmosphere and are harmful to the environment. They can have many different sources, as all lifeforms contain carbon.

All life on Earth is also, in one way or another, dependent on the sun’s energy. Plants use sunlight, via photosynthesis, to turn carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates: energy. When we utilize this energy by burning fossil fuels, we release CO2 back into the atmosphere.

The trouble with this is that CO2 traps the sun’s warmth in the air – we call this the greenhouse effect. Carbon emissions have been proven to be the greatest contributor to global warming by far. And it’s not just a question of mere quantity: Carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years. This is a problem for the future which we all have to commit to solving now. So where do we start? Right here at home.

What Is the Situation in the US?

Transport Pollution
Transportation is the greatest contributor of carbon emissions in the US. (CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash – Ivan Bandura)

The USA is the largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world after China. Of course, much of the energy consumed in China is used to produce goods we buy here in the west. But let’s concentrate on what we can influence more directly: our own carbon emissions.

There are five main sources of carbon emissions in the US. Here’s a closer look at the way our lifestyles and actions contribute to global warming:

  • Transportation: Almost one-third of our carbon emissions are released by the fuels burned by vehicles of all kinds. Domestic flights, food delivery, sitting in traffic – all these ‘necessities’ of modern life make a huge contribution to global warming.
  • Electricity: Over a quarter of our CO2 output comes from our power stations. Although we are reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, it is still the case that over half the power we use for air conditioning and online streaming comes from fossil fuels and produces greenhouse gases.
  • Industry: The production of goods themselves in the US is still a huge source of carbon emissions, contributing over one-fifth to the total.
  • Buildings: Simply heating our homes and offices, among other things, is the cause of every tenth kilo of carbon dioxide we emit.
  • Agriculture: Sectors like the beef and dairy industry are also massive net contributors of CO2.

What Can We Do to Reduce Carbon Emissions?

There are lots of clever ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Let’s look at just a few ideas in more detail, considering some of the sources of emissions in the list above.

Mobility: Almost half of transportation carbon emissions in the US come from personal vehicles. Be part of the solution, not the problem, and cycle or use public transportation. Even carpooling is better than sitting in your car alone!

Household carbon emissions: There are so many simple things you can do around the home to save energy. Did you know the average American household spends around $500 a year on hot water alone? And even something seemingly insignificant like unnecessarily preheating your oven can increase energy consumption by 10 percent.

Food and drink: If the world were to go vegan tomorrow, we could cut 70 percent of our food-related carbon emissions. That may seem an extreme solution, but every single little change we make is helpful too. One-third of the food we could eat is wasted every year – think of the reduction in emissions if we would just stop throwing away the food we normally eat!

Always a good idea: Use a carbon footprint calculator to find out how many emissions you have already saved – and how to do even better.

However, ultimately, we are not just responsible as individual consumers for our personal carbon emissions. Seemingly tiny steps in the right direction can sometimes feel futile – although reducing your carbon footprint is never a bad idea! As members of the same society, we all contribute to the overall carbon emissions of the US. We can only achieve real progress on a national and global scale if we take action together. Here’s a list of eight US environmental organizations for more inspiration on how to begin to make a real change.

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