One of the biggest goals of going “green” is to minimize how much carbon we send off into our atmosphere. We humans, and our constructs, emit carbon in a variety of ways. This carbon can damage our environment – and by association our own future – in myriad ways as well. Many cities today have set goals of becoming carbon neutral, meaning that they strive to have no net carbon released by their city. Does this mean everyone starts riding bikes and the city literally releases no carbon? Well, not really. Let’s explore what a carbon neutral city really is.
The Dangers of Carbon in our Environment Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gases are gases that appear naturally in the atmosphere to absorb or email radiation. In this way these gases (including carbon dioxide, but also methane, ozone, H2O vapor and nitrous oxide) impact the temperature of the Earth, basically warming it. Without any of these gases Texas would have an average temperature colder than Minnesota, about 60 degrees colder than it is today. So, greenhouse gasses sound great, right? Well, greenhouse gasses are important, but in moderate amounts.
The way we live today causes us to emit a lot of carbon dioxide and some other gasses. Burning fossil fuels, including gasoline in our cars and coal in our power plants, are the biggest ways we send carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In short, we are heating up the Earth in what is called the “greenhouse effect,” which contributes to “global warming.” The dangers of global warming are serious. Some scientists believe we are warming the Earth as much as 2 degrees every decade or two. This is starting to melt the polar icecaps and cause negative climate changes. The United States and China are the two biggest emitters of this CO2, but all developed nations are contributors.
Reducing our Carbon Footprints In addition to actually generating carbon dioxide and adding to the greenhouse effect, humans also destroy things that can eliminate the CO2 in our atmosphere. Specifically, deforestation has a huge impact on CO2 levels, as trees that can scrub CO2 from the air are cut down. The question thus becomes two-fold: How can we stop off-gasing so much CO2 while also removing some of the CO2 that we do inevitably create through our modern lives?
The answer is implicit in the question – we must reduce our use of carbon emitting things while also finding ways to mitigate our carbon off-gasing. Many cities are working to do just this by using less and helping nature to take care of the rest. By doing this a city can become carbon neutral.
Becoming a Carbon Neutral City It is unrealistic to expect that any modern city will stop using modern conveniences altogether. Thus, it is nearly impossible to expect that any city will not emit CO2 on at least some level. Sure, cities can encourage walking, biking and mass transit to minimize greenhouse gas emissions. They can encourage green building and green energy use, as well. But as much of an impact as this may make, some CO2 will still be released. So, cities today work to minimize but also to offset their carbon footprint.
Carbon offsetting means to look at how much carbon one is emitting, then, finding some way to remove that much carbon from the atmosphere in some other way. Say for example a person emits X amount of carbon in their daily activity. If they learn that seven 5 foot tall trees can remove that same X amount of carbon from the air, then planting seven 5 foot tall trees can “offset” the carbon that their activities have created, leaving them with a zero carbon footprint. There are many ways to help reduce one’s carbon footprint and new one’s are evolving all the time.
Some Examples and Goals of Carbon Neutral Cities Sadly, while carbon offsets may be able to help lessen global warming, there are also many con-artists out there selling trees that don’t exist or seeds that are never planted. In 2007 the Vatican City hoped to become the first net zero city by buying into a plan to plant acres of trees in Hungary. However, the religious city soon fell prey to unscrupulous business types and thus far the Vatican Forest has not offset a single gram of carbon. Good intentions do not offset carbon on their own.
But success stories can – and do – exist. Many cities are trying to lead the way to carbon neutral living. One city in Denmark uses wind power and biomass heating to live a net zero existence. The government of Norway has vowed to become carbon neutral by 2030. Though most of Norway’s plan is based on purchasing carbon offset credits, rather than reducing their own behavior, the commitment indicates a knowledge of the importance of the issue.