Why Is a Carbon Footprint Bad for the Environment?

Why Is a Carbon Footprint Bad for the Environment?

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Dennis Kamprad

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The growth of the global population and the expansion of the economic and industrial sectors have played a considerable role in the Earth’s capability to absorb carbon emissions both at land and at sea. What makes it so important? To explain and address this issue, the term ‘carbon footprint’ has been coined. This term is extensively used online, in the press, in various research, at global development events to express the negative impact human actions have on the planet.

Our carbon footprint has a negative impact on the environment in multiple ways: It is the main cause of human-induced climate change, it contributes to urban air pollution, it leads to toxic acid rain, it adds to coastal and ocean acidification, and it worsens the melting of glaciers and polar ice.

We are part of an ecosystem where everything is interconnected. And each of our actions enables a cause-effect chain that ultimately impacts the planet and our future on it. That also includes our carbon footprint

How Does a Carbon Footprint Impact the Environment

In general, carbon dioxide is released on Earth by three means – decomposition, respiratory, and ocean release. In simpler words, global economic and industrial activities play a central role in increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and carbon footprint is the measure of their impact on the environment.

[A carbon footprint is the] amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with all the activities of a person or other entity (e.g., building, corporation, country, etc.). It includes direct emissions, such as those that result from fossil-fuel combustion in manufacturing, heating, and transportation, as well as emissions required to produce the electricity associated with goods and services consumed. In addition, the carbon footprint concept also often includes the emissions of other greenhouse gases, such as methane, nitrous oxide, or chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Britannica

Have a look at the summary of some of the most significant impacts of a carbon footprint on the environment in below table.

Impact of a carbon footprint on the environmentWhy is that bad?
Carbon emissions cause climate changeThe ever-increasing CO2 emissions trigger global warming, which leads to climate change with devastating weather events. 
Carbon emissions contribute to urban air pollutionToxic urban smog hanging over big cities causes an alarming number of respiratory infections and even cancer.  
Carbon emissions lead to toxic acid rainAcid rain in the presence of other chemicals in the atmosphere has a devastating effect on human health, fauna, and flora. 
Carbon emissions add to coastal and ocean acidificationAcidic waters are the reason behind the extinction of many marine species. In combination with the rising temperatures, acid is bleaching coral reefs that offer protection and serve as home to much marine wildlife. 
Carbon emissions worsen the melting of glaciers and polar ice Fast-melting glaciers and polar ice incapacitate the Earth’s ability to reflect sunlight and have cascading effects on the Arctic food webs.

Now let’s have a closer look at these arising issues and what makes them so significant globally.

How Carbon Emissions Cause Climate Change

The most devastating effect that carbon emissions have on the environment is climate change

It is the universal pressing challenge of the 21st century whose negative effect is felt across different areas, as mentioned below. Transportation, electricity production, burning fossil fuels for energy, commercial and residential waste management, food production – all emit greenhouse gases. These gases create the ‘greenhouse effect’ and emit thermal infrared radiation that traps heat in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. 

Simply put, the ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions coming from human, industrial and economic activities heat our planet, ultimately leading to extreme weather events like droughts, heatwaves, cyclones, blizzards, and rainstorms.

 A good example is the devastating Australian bushfires in 2019 and 2020. Although the leading cause was arson and lightning, climate change has contributed to its extent and intensity. All because 2019 was officially the hottest and driest year in Australian history

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) fifth assessment report, almost 100% of the modern warming registered since 1950 was caused by human activities and gas emissions. The global population has increased almost 7-fold since then. In direct relation to that, food production, transportation, electricity, and energy production, and economic activities increased over the last 100 years. 

How Carbon Emissions Contribute to Urban Air Pollution

Since the industrial revolution, air pollution has become one of the biggest challenges, getting worse year by year.

Industries have a substantial environmental impact by burning fossil fuels and releasing toxic atmospheric pollutants like heavy metals with hazardous effects on human health. 

Smog is an occurrence observed more often than ever before. In technical terms, it is known as the photochemical oxidant formation of ground-level ozone. Normally, ozone occurs in both the upper atmosphere and ground level. The good ozone, also known as stratospheric ozone occurring in the upper atmosphere, shields us from ultraviolet rays. Man-made chemicals emitted into the atmosphere are responsible for creating holes in the good ozone, which is seen more often these days. 

Low-level or ground-level ozone doesn’t form naturally. It is a chemical reaction that develops as a direct result of CO2 transportation and industrial emissions in the sunlight, which is why smog is usually observed on warm summer days. The air becomes hazy and at its worst very hard to see through, which drastically affects everyday life and has severe negative health consequences

Some of the most vivid examples are the disastrous smog episodes classified as meteorological hazards in China in 2013 and 2016, resulting in the shutdown of entire cities, industries, and hospitalizations due to respiratory issues

How Carbon Emissions Lead to Toxic Acid Rain

Acid rain is another environmental impact of increased CO2 emissions in the atmosphere due to human activities. 

Due to power plants burning fossil fuels, large amounts of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOX) are released into the atmosphere. Walking in acid rain is not dangerous to humans. However, when SO2 and NOX react with sulfate and nitrate particles in the atmosphere, this is when it becomes a huge problem. It affects people by causing respiratory issues like asthma or bronchitis, even cancer

Acid rain also has hazardous ecological effects on natural habitats. Sinking deep into the soil, they deplete essential elements like calcium and release aluminum, making it hard for new life to grow. Acid rain also damages the leaves of the trees by drastically reducing light and nutrient supply.

Acid rain can also deplete lakes of phytoplankton, which serves as essential food for many insects. Some fish, frogs, and birds hugely rely on insects as food sources, so their extinction can threaten the entire food chain. 

How Carbon Emissions Add to Coastal and Ocean Acidification

The Earth is an interconnected system, and the environmental impact of a carbon footprint is also felt across different surface areas. 

Acidity is extremely hazardous to aquatic environments. Our current waste management practices allow the release of chemicals like aluminum, sulfur, and nitrogen into streams, lakes, and deep waters. This hugely affects marine life. The more chemicals are released – the more acidic the environment and the worse the impact. 

While some fish are acid-resistant and can withstand highly acidic waters, others are intolerant to acidity and therefore perish due to the low pH levels. Younger species are generally more susceptible than adults. Did you know that most egg fish cannot hatch in acidic waters at a five pH level?!

Low pH levels drastically affect skeletal mineralization, making it hard for algae, shellfish, and corals to form skeletons and shells, which offer protection and food to marine life. 

Scot Doney, a marine chemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), believes that “Acid rain isn’t just a problem of the land; it’s also affecting the ocean”. Many of the chemical particles are blown offshore, which leads to ocean contamination by altering its chemistry. Near the coasts, this leads to an increase of “dead zones”, which are areas in the water (usually in coastal waters) with too little oxygen to support marine life. As a result, this disrupts ecosystems and leads to the extinction of certain species. 

Another big issue that the carbon footprint is having on aquatic environments is the bleaching of the coral reefs. Coral reefs are home to over 4000 iconic marine and fish species. The increasing bleaching of coral reefs occurs as a direct result of global warming and water acidification. Coral bleaching increases dead zones, threatening to become a food insecurity crisis to millions of people living in coastal regions. 

Carbon Emissions Worsen the Melting of Glaciers and Polar Ice

Melting glaciers are another huge issue we’re facing today due to our increasing carbon footprint.

Glaciers play a massive role in the global water cycle and cooling down the Earth’s surface. They reflect sunlight and keep the surface colder. And yet, glaciers everywhere are melting at an alarming speed.

For example, over 80% of snow atop Kilimanjaro has melted since 1912. Researchers believe that eastern and central Himalayan glaciers are to disappear by 2035. And arctic glaciers have declined by 10% in the last 30 years. Such breaking news we hear now more often than ever before. 

The impact is not that difficult to figure out. The more glaciers melt, the more heat gets trapped in the atmosphere. 

The continuous melting of polar ice is also threatening the population of seals. Seals have to adapt or migrate to track suitable ice conditions. As the ice melts fast, seal pups are forced into the water before they’ve reached maturity to fend for themselves. The disruption in the current ecosystem is inevitably leading to disturbances across the entire Arctic food webs. 

Final Thoughts

More often than not, we’re not aware of how our daily actions and decisions contribute to a massive carbon footprint as part of economic and industrial development. Unbeknownst to us, we’re held responsible for the significant shifts in the global climate ecosystem. And we also happen to be the only ones who can reverse the damage to ensure a prosperous future for the next generations. 

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