In its most basic form, carbon is the most common element for life on Earth. From the air in the atmosphere to the chemical makeup of humans’ bodies, carbon is essential for survival. Carbon naturally enters the atmosphere in a number of different ways, including plant and animal respiration and decomposition.
Nature normally keeps these emissions in balance; however, humans extract and burn fossil fuels—coal, natural gas, oil—disturbing the carbon cycle. 28.9 percent of these emissions come from transportation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Dr. Carlos Sun, who is a professor at the University of Missouri—Columbia, teaches in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department. His main research focuses are sustainable transportation modes, autonomous vehicles and ridesharing.
“It is important to analyze transportation modes in a comprehensive manner by examining the entire life cycle as well as the complete energy requirements,” Dr. Sun said. “For example, an electric vehicle operates cleanly, but different sources of electricity could impact the environment very differently. Same with the use of different fuels. Certain types of fuel might be cleaner burning but could impact the environment more adversely during the production process.”
Vehicles and the carbon dioxide they emit are a daily contributing factor to the global warming process. Although the Earth’s temperature has risen only about two degrees in the last century, small changes in temperature result in lasting impacts in the environment. Potential future effects of global climate change include more frequent wildfires, longer and increased periods of drought in some regions and extended duration and more severe intensity of tropical storms, according to NASA. Carbon footprints are a way to measure individual contributions that lead to these events.
This concept of a carbon footprint refers to the amount of emitted carbon dioxide from the consumption of fossil fuels by a particular person or group. Carbon calculators online take into account factors such as location, travel, home, food and shopping to give a measurement in tons of carbon dioxide a year. Dr. Sun said people can improve their carbon footprints in a number of ways.
“At an individual level, a person can examine their lifestyle choices and make changes that would reduce their personal carbon footprint and environmental impact,” Dr. Sun said. “So one could examine one’s choice of housing and work locations, transportation usage, temperature of the thermostat in the home [and] use of electricity.”
This visualization shows carbon emissions from fires from January 1, 2003 through December 31, 2018. The color bar reflects the quantity of carbon emitted. Credit with permission: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio
About 19.64 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced from burning a gallon of gasoline. The data from the survey conducted shows the approximate distance in miles students traveled on their last road trip and the everyday mode of transportation they use to get to school. This information shows impacts related to carbon footprint in both the short and long term.
How do you get to school?
Infographic by Riley Kerns and Maddie Marrero
How does your carbon footprint affect the environment? Let us know in the comments below.