You have probably heard about the concept of a carbon footprint. The carbon footprint is a quite common indicator of the bad impact on the environment caused by consuming goods and services. Sometimes it comes up in unexpected contexts. For example, I was looking for a hotel room recently and they presented the environmental impact for staying one night in their hotel room in the form of the carbon footprint. The carbon footprint can be used for basically everything. Here are more examples of things for which you can calculate a carbon footprint: a mile driven in a specific car, buying a pound of beef, even just breathing over the course of one’s life. The carbon footprint tells you how much carbon dioxide emissions (and methane) each thing produces.

Origin of carbon dioxide

The gaseous carbon dioxide originates when solids or liquids containing carbon burn. Most of the carbon dioxide is produced due to burning gas in cars, power plants, heating, and for industrial production. Gas(natural gas or gasoline) and coal consist of carbon atoms. When you burn gas or coal, their carbon atoms connect to the air’s oxygen molecules. Each carbon atom connects to two oxygen atoms, due to the rules of chemistry. According to this, the chemical symbol for carbon dioxide is CO2, where C stands for carbon, O stands for oxygen, and the two means that there are two oxygen atoms in this chemical bound. Thus, for each carbon atom, a new molecule is created which consists of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. That’s why it’s called carbon dioxide. The prefix “di” means two in Latin.

How can you calculate a carbon footprint when nothing is burned?

When you buy something such as vegetables, a lot of gas has been burned to farm and then transport them to distribution centers and to local stores. If you buy a computer, a lot of energy was needed to produce it. Often, this energy was produced by burning a fossil fuel such as natural gas or coal, whereby carbon dioxide was produced. There it is: the carbon footprint for a new computer.

Breathing also produces carbon dioxide. When humans and animals breathe, the lung combines carbon atoms, which the body obtained through food, with the air’s oxygen molecules. The result is carbon dioxide, as described in the section above.

Why is carbon dioxide so bad?

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. That means that it causes the earth to heat up over the long term. And that’s bad, as you probably already know from the discussions about global warming in politics and the media. Even a difference of a few degrees on average can cause droughts and food shortages in some areas. The warmer temperatures make the ice near the poles melt and thus the sea levels rise. That's why scientists expect in the future more severe floodings near the coast.

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