Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.
Somebody said to me that carbon footprint isn't the most important thing anymore, that there are other greenhouse gases out there that are more dangerous. Is this true?
Ah, the illustrious carbon footprint. Esteemed by tree huggers as the true marker of one's impact on the planet and reviled by global warming skeptics as nothing more than phraseology poppycock, the expression has become so embedded in the environmental lexicon that a Google search for the term revealed no fewer than 4,240,000 results (nearly three times the hits for "global warming hoax," FYI).
There are dozens of websites devoted to determining -- and diminishing -- one's own magic number. At TerraPass.com, for example, you can calculate the carbon footprint of your wedding, by providing information about out-of-town guests traveling to the event and hotel rooms required. Via the Nature Conservancy site, you can even make monthly contributions to offset a portion of the carbon emissions you aren't able to reduce.
But what does carbon footprint mean, exactly? And is it possible that a mere two years after making it into Merriam-Webster, the phrase could be passé?
I say yes. But before you throw the big green book at me, some brief background:
The carbon part of carbon footprint refers to carbon dioxide (CO2); i.e., a chemical compound that has increased in the atmosphere since the burning of carbon-based fossil fuels like coal and oil began during the Industrial Revolution. It's those intensifying concentrations of man-made CO2 around the planet, as you likely know, that 97 percent of climatologists have linked to global warming.
My objection to the phrase comes down to sustainable semantics: What most people don't realize is that this catch-all term is meant to include the impact of other greenhouse gases that can be even more powerful -- in some cases over 20,000 times more so -- than the common carbon.
Carbon dioxide is used merely as the unit of measure; the carbon footprint of a hamburger, for example, would also likely take into consideration a cow's methane emissions, which would then be converted into the amount of CO2 ("CO2 equivalent") that would cause the same effect on global warming. But by referring to this as carbon footprint alone, I think we're missing the opportunity to raise awareness about those other potent greenhouse gases.
Take a look at these five global warming offenders:
The aforementioned cow-fueled climate changer (bovine burps and other enteric fermentation are the number one source of methane in the United States) has also caught recent heat as another ecological consequence of the BP oil spill; it seems that methane, 23 times stronger than CO2 and the largest component of natural gas, has been spewing from the ocean floor along with the crude and likely making its way into our atmosphere.
Heading to the dentist? Maybe fraidy cats will think twice before asking for the “three martini cleaning” after learning that laughing gas is no laughing matter when it comes to climate change -- we’re talking 296 times the global warming potential of CO2. The primary source of the stuff, however, is industrial agriculture and its excessive use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, which account for 70 to 75 percent of all N2O emissions.
As planetary temperatures rise, so could the voracity of insects, making it all the more important to find greener alternatives now for sulfuryl fluoride, a relatively new pesticide with 4,800 times the heat-trapping power of CO2 and a lifespan of 36 years. (Not to be confused with sulphur hexafluoride, a super greenhouse gas once used to fill the air cushions of Nike shoes and now being phased out in many industries.) Tenting your house? Ask for it to be treated with the more eco-friendly orange oil instead.
When chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were banned in 1987 (thanks to the role they played in depleting the ozone layer), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) were thought to be a safer alternative, and have since been used as refrigerants in everything from vending machines to the cars we drive. Turns out, they can pack up to 20,000 times the global warming punch of CO2, and have atmospheric lifetimes of up to 260 years. Oops.
Though not technically a greenhouse gas, this simple soot (produced from biomass burning, the incomplete combustion of diesel fuel, and crude cook stoves used in much of the developing world) has been shown to be a powerful source of planetary warming; as much as 18 percent, by recent estimates. The good news: Because black carbon is short-lived in the atmosphere, reducing its levels could be a possible quick-fix solution to the threat of irreversible global warming damage. Talk about a true way to cut our carbon footprint...
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