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Earth Sense: Climate conference leaves much in the air

POSTED: December 16, 2012 12:49 a.m.

The 2012 climate conference in Doha, Qatar, on the Persian Gulf concluded without strong measures to control carbon dioxide emissions.

You may wonder what all the noise is about. Carbon dioxide is a tiny component of the gases that make up the atmosphere. The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration tracks it at Mauna Loa in Hawaii. In the 1950s, concentrations were about 0.0315 percent. Currently, it’s 0.0391 percent.

That doesn’t seem like much, but CO2 is a “greenhouse gas” trapping heat in the atmosphere. This, in turn, causes seawater to expand as it warms, and ocean levels have been rising.

It’s difficult to say whether Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Katrina were the result of such climate change. But countries located mostly at sea level, for example Pacific Island nations like the Philippines or Tuvalu and Kiribati (near Australia) have a lot to lose when storm floods become more frequent.

Climate accords seek to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which are mostly the product of industry, automobiles and home heating. The U.S. government balks at paying compensation to the island countries, pointing at China as the biggest source of CO2. China and the United States did not join the 1997 Kyoto Accord, which has been extended by the Doha Conference.

What can we do at the homefront about carbon emissions? One common mistake is burning the fall leaves.

Everything that burns produces CO2, as well as nasty smoke that irritates neighbors. But leaves are also a valuable nutrient for the soil. They can be put to much better use through composting, or tilling them directly into the ground. An alternative is to use a mulching mower, which chops them up and gradually feeds them back into the soil.

Secondly, trees are our biggest ally. They absorb carbon dioxide and turn it into new growth. In addition, trees produce shade which helps keep the surface cooler and reduce air conditioning bills.

Energy conservation is the third issue, because any amount of electricity saved helps cut down on the need for more power plants. Coal-fired plants, in particular, are large emitters of CO2. If homes and businesses become more energy-efficient through conservation and use of solar energy (use Google Earth to check rooftops in Germany for an amazing discovery), we’ll make a big step toward slowing climatic change.

Regardless of the international haggling, which is likely to continue.


Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.


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