Climate change is hard to visualize. Unlike, say, a hurricane or tidal wave, climate change isn't a single cataclysmic event. Instead, it is an on-going process that is increasing the probability of sea-level rise and devastating natural disasters due to a warming climate. It's hard to get worried about words like "probability" or "likelihood".
Even worse, climate change isn't like plastic pollution or toxic sludge – its causes aren't visible. When we ask, "how much is a tonne of CO2?" we're not literally asking "how much"; we're trying to conceptualize CO2 in a way we can understand. Like when we translate area into football fields or nuclear energy relative to the first atomic bombs.
Considering carbon credits are worth 1 tonne of CO2e, we thought it important to understand what we mean.
In this article, we'll be wrapping our heads around "a tonne of CO2". We'll use clever metaphors and examples to help us understand what this term means. We'll discuss precisely how much fuel is burned to produce one tonne of CO2 and how this compares to global emissions.
Let's get started.
How much is a tonne of CO2?
Imagine you're standing in a colossal room. It's 27 feet tall, wide, and long – roughly 4 to 5 people standing on top of one another. This giant cube is how much space is needed to hold a metric tonne of CO2.
That's a little bigger than an American short ton, however (though not by much): 1 metric ton equals 1.1 US short tonnes.
In short – it's a big room to store that much gas. Part of the reason is that CO2 is… well, a gas – and gases tend not to be very dense. The average Canadian is responsible for almost 19 tonnes CO2 per year - one of the highest emissions rates in the world. It's a lot!
In an amazing art installation, the 2009 UN climate talks in Copenhagen featured CO2 CUBES. These colossal structures – made from shipping containers – were draped in screens with images and videos projected. Each one was one metric ton of CO2 – it was a powerful message (you can see this for yourself here).
What produces a tonne of CO2?
That's one way to think about CO2 – as a substance with weight and volume. But CO2 doesn't miraculously appear in the air; from a climate change perspective, we can think about what kinds of things happen to produce one metric tonne of CO2. By doing so, we can frame our efforts to minimize our CO2 emissions.
Here are some stats. One tonne of CO2 equals:
The average US citizen produces one tonne of CO2 in two weeks; the average citizen of most industrialized countries does so in one month.
The average one passenger return flight from Paris to New York
One car driving 6,210 miles – roughly the distance from Canada to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
121,643 smartphones being charged.
As you can see, while all emissions are created equally, not all modes of transport produce an equal volume of emissions. Air travel, for example, releases substantially more CO2 than cars – albeit they carry more people. Still, a 3,000-mile trip flight emits approximately one tonne of CO2 per passenger.
Meanwhile, in our everyday lives, the food we eat accounts for around two tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. That's not solely the energy needed to grow the food; it's the trucks and ships that transport it around the world – and the greenhouse emissions emitted from wasted food decaying in landfills.
Yet, most of the emissions from our daily lives aren't from cooking or driving: they're from our participation in large-scale processes such as power consumption, mining and manufacturing. These activities consume gargantuan quantities of fossil fuels. When averaged over the entire population, it's a lot of CO2. For instance, roughly two tonnes of CO2 are released into the atmosphere for every tonne of steel produced.
Reducing our CO2 emissions
We can also think of CO2 in another way. Not as the equivalent of an activity emitting CO2, but what's required to remove it. (After all, to limit the effects of global climate change, we need to start reducing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere). In this case: 50 trees must grow for a whole year to remove 1 tonne of CO2 emissions.
At SOLAR OFFSET, the most important question is how much CO2 does a solar panel save?
The answer, of course, depends on where you are. This is due to two factors. Firstly, the amount of “solar insolation” (which basically means energy from sunshine) varies by location, with some parts of the country getting more than others (think of the sunny skies of the prairies compared to the cloudier coastal regions). This means that the same solar panel in Alberta produces a lot more electricity than in Prince Edward Island. Secondly, the type of fuel used to generate grid electricity varies, from clean hydro-electricity in BC or Manitoba, for example, to fossil fuels in Alberta and Saskatchewan; in this case, the same solar panel in Alberta reduces CO2 emissions by much more than a panel in BC.
In Alberta, an average 10 kW solar PV system will save around 7 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. The more solar panels you have, the more you'll reduce the CO2 emitted. And with every tonne of CO2 equivalent to a carbon credit, you'll earn more while doing so.
One tonne of CO2 in perspective
Despite being a common unit of CO2, one tonne is huge. When compared to all our emissions, however, it's paltry. The whole human race emits an unfathomable 35 billion tonnes of CO2 in a year.
Using the 27 sq ft cubes, it would cover 915,224 square miles. That's enough space to cover Alaska and Texas – the two biggest US states.
You can calculate your household CO2 using the US EPA's carbon calculator.
One tonne of CO2: It's more than you think
Now you can picture one tonne of CO2. It's bigger than your house!
We'll need to work together to reduce emissions and stop the worst effects of climate change and installing solar is one of the best ways to reduce your CO2 emissions.
By joining a carbon credit pool, you can earn an additional income stream from these GHG emission reductions, making solar a more affordable choice.