Picturing a ton of CO2

Tons of CO2 pollution. We are always hearing about how many tons of CO2 pollution we emit. The average American car emits about seven tons of CO2 in a year; the average American family, about 24 tons; the United States as a whole, over seven billion tons; and worldwide, almost 30 billion tons. The Virgin Earth Challenge (see last week’s post) offers $25 million to whoever can economically remove one billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year.

But what is a ton of CO2?

People keep saying to me, I thought CO2 is a gas. How can a gas have weight? I explain that CO2 is made up of atoms, and atoms have mass, and with gravity mass has weight. As often as not, my explanation is met with a blank stare. So let me try a different tack.

Picture a football field, and then imagine a round balloon with one end lined up on the goal line and the other on the 10 yards line – that is, a balloon with a diameter of 10 yards. If that balloon were filled with CO2, it would weigh about 1 ton; it would be a 1-ton CO2 balloon.

In 2006 an American family emitted the equivalent of 24 CO2 balloons by powering their home, driving their cars and flying. If you lined those balloons from end-to-end they would go from goal line to goal line almost two-and-a-half times – 240 yards!

Within a year or two, a little more than half of those CO2 balloons will be absorbed from the atmosphere into the ocean or trees. Unfortunately, the rest of the balloons will hang around for a very long time. One hundred years from now there will still be almost half a football field of CO2 balloons left to overheat the earth. And that’s just the CO2 from one family in 2006. There will also be CO2 balloons from 2007, 2008, and so on.

In total, Americans were responsible for more than seven billion CO2 balloons in 2006. Lined up end to end they would circle the earth 1,600 times, and the number grows each year. Isn’t it about time we start taking the CO2 out of some of those balloons?

Do you have ways of your own to imagine what a ton of CO2 looks like? If so, post them here! If I think of other ways to visualize a ton of CO2, I’ll add them, too.

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