Easy, Eco-Friendly Finds for Everyone. Shop Brightly!

What You Need to Know About Carbon Emissions

Everyone knows that carbon emissions play a massive role in climate change, but understanding exactly how they effect climate change and what individuals can do to help is a different story.

Written by
Brightly Staff

Everyone knows that carbon emissions play a massive role in climate change, but understanding exactly how they impact the world is a different story. Laura Diez, a climate scientist and the host of the Eco Chic podcast, joins us to explain the ins and outs of carbon, how and why carbon is priced, how it affects global policy, and what we as consumers can do to support carbon neutrality from our daily purchases to our 401(k). 

About Our Guest, Laura Diez

Laura is the host of the podcast Eco Chic, where she talks about climate science, sustainability, and how to create a more eco-conscious lifestyle for the everyday woman. She strives to make climate science informative, digestible, and relatable—in other words, you don’t need to be a lofty academic to understand climate change! 

The Truth Behind Carbon

Carbon is just a gas. It’s a normal element on the periodic table. When we talk about climate change and carbon, we’re really talking about carbon dioxide, or CO2. The greenhouse gas that is the most present in our atmosphere by volume is CO2.

CO2 Is the Baseline Greenhouse Gas

CO2 is the baseline gas for all other greenhouse gases. This means that other greenhouse gases are measured against CO2

There are two factors to be concerned about with greenhouse gases: their lifetime and their warming potential. The lifetime of a greenhouse gas is a measure of how long the gas stays in the atmosphere. This determines how long a greenhouse gas is negatively impacting the environment. 

Warming potential measures how much heat the gas can trap while it is in the atmosphere. The more heat the gas traps, the warmer the atmosphere becomes.

For example, methane has 27 times more warming potential than carbon dioxide. Organic materials, such as food waste, let off methane gas when they decompose without access to oxygen. 

That’s why composting is on our top ten list of ways to stop climate change. Allowing food waste to biodegrade naturally rather than compacted in a landfill means that it will give off much less methane. 

Carbon In Politics

Cap And Trade Policy 

This policy designates a certain amount of carbon emissions to companies. For example, a company assigned 5 credits of carbon might actually need 7 for their operations. The company will need to buy or trade for the extra carbon credits from another company that is using fewer than their allotted amount. 

However, using carbon as a currency can sometimes have the opposite of the intended effect. It’s difficult to assign carbon credits accurately. If a business is given more carbon credits than they have used in the past, they have no incentive to reduce their usage. That’s why the carbon tax model is gaining traction.

Carbon Tax

As we head into the 2020 political season, you might hear candidates mentioning the possibility of a carbon tax. In essence, a carbon tax is a price assigned to an activity or action based on the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere during the activity. 

Transportation is a good example of an activity that could be carbon taxed. Planes, trains, and cars all emit CO2. The tax would be in correlation to the CO2 entering the atmosphere whenever we travel, commute, or drive and be used to offset it. 

The issue with a carbon tax would be how difficult it is to measure the impact of any individual activity. Carbon is measured in gigatons, which can be confusing to wrap your mind around. Then there’s the question of how much a gigaton of carbon is worth, and of how the tax on that gigaton should be allocated. 

If carbon is priced too low, the tax collected might not be able to truly offset the harm created by carbon dioxide emissions. If it’s priced too high, backlash and economic consequences are likely. As Laura explains, it’s a very tricky balance to find.

Carbon Offsetting

For a long time, carbon offsetting was managed by non-profit groups. You could go to one of these groups and pay for a certain amount of offset based on your travel plans, daily lifestyle, or car usage. The organization would plant a corresponding amount of trees for the price of your offset. 

Now, global organizations like the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are more actively working on carbon offsets. The UN has a carbon footprint calculator with a variety of options to offset your carbon presented if you want to know more.

The Paris Agreement

First entered into in November 2016, The Paris Agreement is the global standard by which UN member nations are working to reduce the advances in global warming. 

The agreement focuses on two main goals: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is the slowing of contributions to climate change. Adaptation is when the contribution has already happened and society adapts to climate change after the fact. 

Countries Who Are Doing It Right

Up until recently, Germany was the golden child of climate solutions. Germany has several policies and tech solutions that incentivize the use of electric vehicles, recycling, and other lifestyle changes that can help reduce individuals’ impact on global warming.

Costa Rica is also a leader in terms of renewable energy. They have their own Green New Deal that aggressively promotes carbon neutrality. For the past couple of years, all of Costa Rica’s energy has come from renewable sources, particularly hydro energy.

What Can Consumers Do?

Do A Quick Google Search

When you’re thinking about purchasing an item from a company, google the company’s name and “sustainability plan” or “resiliency plan.” More and more businesses are acknowledging their impact on the environment and publishing what they are doing to lower that impact. 

Buy From a Business That Cares

If you want to buy from businesses that care about climate change, there are a few labels to look for: Climate Neutral Certification, Carbon Neutral Certification, and Certified B Corporation

Laura recommends looking for B Corp. labels in particular. Not only are these companies reducing their emissions as much as possible, but their supply chains are ethical. 

One company that Laura loves for their environmental work is Lush. Lush products are full of whole foods and are made fresh—some even need to be refrigerated when you take them home. Their containers are on a closed loop because they can be returned to the store, sanitized, and reused. They have been on the forefront of eco-conscious consumerism since their founding in 1995.

In the fashion sector, Laura recommends Everlane. They are very transparent about the cost of producing their clothing and offer an inside look into each of their factories. They are a great example of how a company can be open about the production of its goods, to the benefit of ethical consumers. 

Vote With Your (Investment) Dollars

If you have a 401(k) or savings account, you’re investing in other businesses. Those businesses may or may not align with your values. You can look for options that use environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors so that you are investing in companies that are environmentally focused. 

Make Your Life More Efficient

It might not be the sexiest topic, but home efficiency is a fuel source that can create a positive influence on the environment. Ensuring that your home is properly insulated, opening your windows instead of using air conditioning, and buying energy efficient light bulbs are just a few options to maximize your home’s efficiency. 

Remember That Necessity is the Mother of Invention

As many of our Good Together guests mention, repurposing what you already have is one of the best ways to reduce your negative effect on the environment. Buying less stuff means fewer greenhouse gas emissions, plain and simple! 

Laura encourages us to be creative with our used items. Old t-shirts can become cleaning rags, while the odds and ends in your fridge can become a full, delicious meal. Searching for ways to be more self-sufficient is a gift to yourself and the planet.

Resources We Mentioned

Other Great Resources