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Sami Rousselot

Aug. 12, 2021



What is a ton of CO2, and how much do we emit?


To limit global warming and mitigate the effects of climate change, we must drastically reduce our CO2 emissions. But what does a ton of CO2 represent, and how much do we emit?


Image by Carbon Visuals, "THE CASE FOR CARBON CAPTURE & STORAGE" - 2015


Whether it comes to producing goods and services, feeding, travelling, or entertainment, our daily activities emit a certain amount of CO2. To quantify the impact of greenhouse gases worldwide, we use the metric ton of CO2 as a reference unit. Therefore, it is crucial to understand what a ton of CO2 represents to recognize our impact on the climate. For most people, this is an abstract concept. Together, we will clarify this notion and try to get a better understanding through practical examples.


CO2, or carbon dioxide, is the most common anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) present in the atmosphere. It is invisible, odourless, and has a density of 1,964 kg/m3 (0°C, 1 atm). As explained in a previous article on carbon accounting, greenhouse gases can enhance global warming – in addition to causing health problems - and accelerate climate change. There are several GHGs, but we use one unit to quantify them all: the CO2 equivalent unit (CO2e) for simplification purposes. Additionally, it's the commonly used unit to measure the impact of anthropogenic activities on global warming.



Here are some everyday examples emitting roughly one ton of CO2:



It is hard for people to understand this concept because GHGs are invisible, and it is not easy to find tangible real-life comparisons. Because a picture is worth a thousand words, it is now possible to see the invisible and get a better visualization of our impact thanks to Carbon Visuals and their graphic representations of CO2 emissions. Using the above-mentioned density we can calculate that 1 ton of CO2 has a volume of 510m3 and the next picture shows what it represents in our environment.


Image by Carbon Visuals, "THE CASE FOR CARBON CAPTURE & STORAGE" - 2015 


In the picture below, you can see New York city fully covered by a massive pile of CO2 (one sphere = one ton), precisely 106,849,315 tons, representing the amount of CO2 added each day into the atmosphere by human activity in 2012. 


NY city (surface area of around 783 km²) covered by 106,849,315 tons of CO2 illustrated by sphere


Now let's put it into perspective. With the current world population and to meet the Paris Agreement goal of maintaining global warming below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, we should emit less than 2.3 tons of CO2 per person and per year around the world.

In 2018 and based on GHGs national inventories, a person would emit on average 4.8 tons of CO2, with the richest countries on top of the list of the biggest emitters.  

However, national inventories are based on the generation of GHGs within the national territory. To be accurate, the carbon footprint must be associated with the broad consumption of a country, regardless of the geographic origin of the production of goods and services, and is made of the following points:

• Direct household GHGs emissions;
• GHGs emissions from national production of goods and services for national demand (including energy);
• Emissions from national production associated with exports;
• GHGs emissions are associated with imported goods and services, for intermediate consumption by businesses or for final use by households.

The carbon footprint, therefore, provides additional information to the national GHGs inventories carried out each year and is more representative. As an example, the carbon footprint per capita for a country like France represents around 5 tons of CO2  based on national inventories and the current population, against 11 tons based on broad consumption, which highlights the extra efforts that must be made to meet the essential threshold of 2.3t.

If we want to reach the Paris Agreement, we must drastically cut off our carbon emissions. With a better understanding of what represents a ton of CO2 and how much we emit, we hope you understand the challenges and are ready to help build a better future. With Tapio, you can now take action and use our platform to account, monitor, analyze, and reduce your business's carbon emissions.

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