climate change

What’s Going on With Earth’s Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Levels?

Image by Manfred Antranias Zimmer from Pixabay

Climate change has crept up on the world. Americans emitted more than 6.5 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2019. 80% of these emissions were carbon dioxide (CO2).

Americans are already feeling the effects of climate change. Tropical storms are becoming more frequent, and farmland is becoming less sustainable. Everyone must take steps to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, and the first step you can take is to educate yourself.

What exactly is atmospheric carbon dioxide? How do humans emit it, and do natural processes play a role in how much gas is in the atmosphere? What can you do to reduce your emissions?

Answer these questions and you can fight climate change in no time. Here is your quick guide.

The Basics of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

Carbon is a component of many important compounds. In addition to carbon dioxide, it forms substances like limestone that support the soil and form habitats for animals.

When carbon dioxide rises out of the soil, it can travel into the atmosphere where it remains for years. CO2 can absorb infrared radiation from the sun and then trap heat above the Earth’s surface. This produces the greenhouse effect, which is a major process for climate change.

Carbon dioxide is one of several trace gases in the atmosphere. Methane and nitrous oxide are two others, and they can trap more heat than carbon dioxide. However, carbon dioxide is the trace gas that humans produce the most, so it is more important to understand CO2 than other gases.

Human Contributions

Humans are the leading forces behind the greenhouse effect. The burning of fossil fuels produces a large amount of carbon dioxide, which travels upward into the atmosphere.

The Earth has carbon sinks, locations with materials that can trap CO2 and store it to produce other compounds. Soil, forests, and oceans can act as sinks.

However, industrialization has destroyed many sinks. Humans have torn down trees to build buildings and roads. People have also polluted the soil and oceans with chemicals, preventing them from capturing carbon dioxide.

Humans began to industrialize during the 1800s. As time went on, people burned more fossil fuels and used complex technology to develop their infrastructure.

In 1960, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was less than 320 parts per million. Levels are now above 410 parts per million. This sharp increase occurred simultaneously with industrialization, suggesting humans play a significant role.

Natural Trends

Plants release carbon dioxide when they respirate. They take in oxygen so they can grow properly, and they release carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Volcanoes also release CO2 when they erupt.

Over millennia, CO2 emissions have ebbed and flowed. Emissions generally increase during the spring, as many plants release their carbon dioxide. Emissions then fall as plants die and lay seeds in the autumn.

Emissions also flow from year to year. During the Cambrian Period 500 million years ago, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may have reached 4,000 parts per million. This allowed multicellular organisms like arachnids to evolve.

Many conservatives have pointed to natural increases in carbon dioxide concentrations as evidence against climate change. What they ignore is that these increases occur gradually. It took hundreds of millions of years for the concentration to rise and drop.

The recent rise in emissions has occurred in a few decades, not thousands of years. Current concentrations are higher than they have been for millions of years, and they endanger plant and animal life.

Ways to Resist Climate Change

You can take many steps to avoid contributing CO2 into the atmosphere. You can reduce your consumption of fossil fuels by switching over to renewable sources of energy. You can place solar panels on your roof, eliminating your use of electricity made from coal and petroleum.

Nuclear power uses nuclear reactions to make electricity. These reactions do not produce any greenhouse gases, so you can use nuclear power to reduce your carbon footprint.

Yet you should keep in mind that nuclear reactions produce radioactive waste that can damage habitats. Try to use nuclear electricity alongside solar and wind power.

If you can buy an electric car, you should do so. If you can’t, try to use public transportation whenever you need to get anywhere. When you need to travel across the country, ride a train instead of flying on an airplane that uses a lot of gasoline.

Carbon capture and storage technology can trap CO2 in the atmosphere and store it underground. You can get a Climeworks subscription and pay money every month to use capture technology. You can also invest in companies that produce tools for renewable electricity, including solar panels.

Many grassroots organizations support political candidates that want to fight climate change. You can join one of these organizations, or you can support the candidate directly. You can join a charity that plants trees and takes care of the soil to produce carbon sinks.

The Essentials of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

Atmospheric carbon dioxide is killing the planet. It traps solar radiation and heat over the Earth, driving climate change. Though methane and nitrous oxide also play roles in global warming, carbon dioxide is the biggest source.

Human contributions through burning fossil fuels and destroying natural habitats are the biggest contributors to emissions. Natural trends play a small role, but they occur gradually over millions of years. You must take steps to reduce your use of fossil fuels and support the use of carbon capture tools.

But don’t stop there. Read more guides to climate change by following our coverage.

Clay Miller
the authorClay Miller
I am the creator/writer of and I'm an advocate for oceans, beaches, state parks. I enjoy all things outdoors (e.g. running, golf, gardening, hiking, etc.) I am a graduate of the University of Kentucky (Go Wildcats!!). I'm also a huge fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I was born and raised in the beautiful state of Kentucky.