Chesapeake PSR

Why an increase in CO2 matters

Climate Change and Energy, CoalLydia SullivanComment

by Grace Chen

Back in 1959, Scientific American published an article that posed a question that has lasted for decades: “A current theory postulates that carbon dioxide regulates the temperature of the Earth. This raises an interesting question: How do man’s activities influence the climate of the future?”1

We now know that CO2 does in fact increase Earth’s atmospheric temperature. Naturally, Earth’s transparent atmosphere allows sunlight in to warm the planet. But instead of allowing heat in the form of infrared radiation to escape from the Earth and go back out to space, CO2 actually absorbs that radiation and causes the heat to circulate around Earth’s atmosphere.

Half a century later, NASA reports that “the most important long-lived ‘forcing’ of climate change” – more than a one-third increase in atmospheric CO2 – has occurred since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The notable increase in CO2 comes from burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil, as the burning causes a chemical reaction in which one carbon atom combines with two oxygen atoms.2

A paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that climate change caused by higher concentrations of atmospheric CO2 is irreversible for 1,000 years, even after CO2 emissions stop. Therefore, any temperature increases that took place from an increase in CO2 concentration will last for at least 1,000 years.3

In addition to global warming, CO2 has other negative health effects as well. Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson’s air modeling showed that high levels of CO2 could increase local temperature, alter urban water vapor and wind patterns and stagnate the local air column.4 These effects could then lead to increased smog-forming ozone and particulate matter in the air, and thereby an increase in the number of deaths caused by air pollution.5

That’s why it’s so important that in 2014, Maryland’s seven coal-fired power plants emitted a total of 20,062,664.14 tons of CO2.6


So, really how much CO2 is 20,062,664.14 tons? The following activities would all emit 20 million tons of CO2:

  • An average car could be driven nonstop for 88,977 years
  • A 747 plane could fly nonstop for 72.29 years
  • An average house could be powered for 1,543,282 years7

Numerous negative health effects are caused by manmade CO2 emissions. For more information and a deeper discussion on CO2 emissions and other pollutants from coal-fired plants in Maryland, attend Chesapeake PSR’s November 9 workshop on “Understanding the Health Consequences in Maryland of Electricity Produced from Fossil Fuels,” at MedChi in Baltimore. The workshop will discuss the health effects of the pollutants released by coal-fired plants, as well as natural gas-fired plants.

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Grace Chen is an intern at Chesapeake PSR and a student at Johns Hopkins University.