Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Saving Our Planet's Biodiversity By Reducing Our Carbon Footprint

 Human activities have caused our planet’s biodiversity to decline at unprecedented rates. Global climate change remains a great threat to Earth’s biodiversity, and carbon dioxide emissions from human activities are the primary cause of climate change. For these reasons, it is important to consider the carbon footprint of human activities.  Essentially, the carbon footprint calculates the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by human activities, such as driving and flying.  Fossil fuel combustion is the primary source of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. To provide some perspective, using one gallon of fuel in your car produces 19 pounds of carbon dioxide. Given that the average American drives 12,000 miles each year with a 20 mile per gallon vehicle, each American emits 12,000 pounds of carbon dioxide each year from driving alone.

Image source: (http://www.eoearth.org/files/112301_112400/112391/Individual_carbon_footprint.JPG)
The image above shows the breakdown of an average person’s carbon footprint, with gas, oil, and coal making up 15% of the typical person’s carbon footprint.
Image source: (http://www.eoearth.org/article/Carbon_footprint
As you can see from this image, fossil fuel combustion contributes 82% of the carbon dioxide emitted on this planet. Reducing fossil fuel combustion is necessary to reduce our individual carbon footprint. Since fossil fuel combustion comprises a large part of our carbon footprint, we must continue to develop affordable alternative transportation options.
Video source: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o1vbtnExw_g&noredirect=1)
 The video above shows the combined volume of carbon dioxide emitted in just one minute by China and the United States, compared to the rest of the world. As you can see, the United States and China carbon dioxide emission values are equivalent to 400 meters, which is equal to the height of the Empire State building.

 These staggering statistics show that within one day, humans emit incredible amounts of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels. Why is reducing our carbon footprint important? Carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels has been implicated as the main cause of global climate change, and many organisms will not be able to survive the current rate of climate change. Specifically, increased global temperatures have been identified as a primary factor in the decline of amphibians. Since amphibians typically occupy narrow ranges with specific temperature and moisture conditions, they are greatly threatened by global climate change. One study found that climate change also puts amphibians at greater risk for infection by pathogens, (Rohr et al, 2010).

 Reducing our carbon footprint is also crucial for preserving arctic life, which is under great threat due to climate change. Both marine and terrestrial life in Arctic regions will not be able to adapt to shrinking ice caps and warming ocean waters. For example, the National Wildlife Federation website (http://www.nwf.org/global-warming/effects-on-wildlife-and-habitat/polar-bears.aspx) explains that the ice- free period in the Hudson Bay has increased by 20 days in the past 20 years. This increased ice- free period has reduced polar bear’s seal hunting season by three weeks. With this narrower hunting range, polar bear weights and reproduction rates have declined. Therefore, any efforts to conserve our planet’s biodiversity must begin at reducing our carbon footprint. By reducing our carbon footprint, we will decrease the current rate of climate change, and in turn, help preserve our planet’s biodiversity.
 Image source: (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Melting-ice-polar-bear.jpg)

 What can we do to reduce our carbon footprint? In a report released by the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings in 2008 (http://www.tulsaworld.com/webextra/content/items/carbonfootprint_report.pdf), large urban regions with high annual-passenger miles of rail transit had lower per-capita carbon footprints than urban regions with less rail transit available. Therefore, large cities must invest in rail transit to reduce the carbon footprint from transportation. However, implementing mass rail transit requires government involvement and would incur high costs. Individuals can help reduce their carbon footprint by making small changes to their daily lives. When possible, we should use bicycles to travel to school, work, or other places within a reasonable distance. We can also utilize public transportation when commuting to work each day. In cities without reliable public transportation or bike routes, forming car pools is an option that would help reduce the carbon footprint from driving. All these personal lifestyle changes are cheap to implement and are relatively easy to do. These changes would help conserve our planet’s biodiversity by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning.

 In addition to the changes mentioned above, the development and widespread use of energy sources that don’t burn fossil fuels will be required to reduce our carbon footprint. A recent recent New York times article explained that electric cars which use clean sources of electricity, such as hydroelectricity, can reduce the carbon footprint by almost 50% of today’s most efficient gasoline-based vehicles. This study did not take into account the carbon footprint from manufacturing and changing electric car batteries. To reduce carbon footprint emissions from our vehicles, it is also important to consider how manufacturing electric batteries affects the environment. Electric cars aren’t widely available and are often more expensive than traditional vehicles. Furthermore, electric vehicles have limited ranges and to extend the range, electric vehicles also have gasoline engines. Therefore, electric vehicles can reduce our carbon footprint greatly, but until their cost and range are equivalent to gas-powered vehicles, we will continue to rely on fossil fuels for transportation. This highlights the need to continue our investment into cleaner transportation, because our current carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles will cause continued global climate change and great biodiversity threat.

 Image source : (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/automobiles/how-green-are-electric-cars-depends-on-where-you-plug-in.html?pagewanted=all)

 We also need to consider how airline travel affects our carbon footprint.  A cross country flight from New York City to San Francisco and back emits approximately 5,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions for each passenger. Since two cross-country flights emits almost half as many greenhouse gases as driving 12,000 miles a year does, flying makes up a significant portion of our carbon footprint. We must cut the number of flights taken each year, and if possible, use high-speed rail or buses to make those cross-country trips in order to significantly reduce our carbon footprint.

 To protect the planet’s biodiversity, we need to address the main causes of biodiversity loss. The carbon footprint is important to consider when tackling this daunting task. Since the carbon footprint measures carbon dioxide emissions from human activities, we can determine which activities emit the most greenhouse gases. With greenhouse gases being the primary cause of global climate change, reducing our greenhouse emissions will help reduce the rate of climate change as well as reduce the loss of biodiversity. From using public transportation to developing electric vehicles, we can make the necessary changes to reduce our carbon footprint. However, we must be motivated to make these changes and begin today, because if we maintain our current carbon footprint, we will not be able to conserve this planet’s biodiversity.

Works Cited

Molnar P., Derocher A., Klanjscek T., Lewis M. Predicting Climate Change Impacts On Polar Bear Litter Size. 2011. Nat Commun. doi: 10.1038/ ncomms1183. 

Rohr JR, Raffel TR. Linking Global Climate Change and Temperature Variability to Widespread Amphibian Declines Putatively Caused By Disease. 2010. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 107(18): 8269-74.


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