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MYTH #13: Humans emit a tiny percentage of the carbon in the air


There's a lot of carbon in the atmosphere and only a tiny part of it is manmade.


Not all the carbon in the air comes from humans. Problem is, humans send up an extra dose of carbon that nature can't handle.

Carbon cycles naturally through the environment. It is taken up by plants and breathed out by animals, and it moves back and forth between the air and the oceans. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, this natural cycle was more or less balanced. The carbon that entered the atmosphere was roughly equal to the amount that was absorbed and stored. But by burning dirty energy like oil and coal, we’re injecting “new” carbon into the cycle ⎯ carbon that used to be locked underground. The ocean and plants on land are working extra hard to absorb some of this excess, but they can’t take it all. That’s why carbon pollution is accumulating ⎯ and we have more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than any time in nearly a million years.

Additional info from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities. In the U.S., for example, CO2 accounted for about 84% of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in 2010. Carbon dioxide is naturally present in the atmosphere as part of the Earth's carbon cycle (the natural circulation of carbon among the atmosphere, oceans, soil, plants and animals). Human activities are altering the carbon cycle — both by adding more CO2 to the atmosphere and by influencing the ability of natural sinks, like forests, to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. While CO2 emissions come from a variety of natural sources, human-related emissions are responsible for the increase that has occurred in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

The main human activity that emits CO2 is the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil) for energy and transportation, although certain industrial processes and land-use changes also emit CO2.

Carbon dioxide is constantly being exchanged among the atmosphere, ocean, and land surface as it is both produced and absorbed by many microorganisms, plants and animals. However, emissions and removal of CO2 by these natural processes tend to balance. Since the Industrial Revolution began around 1750, human activities have contributed substantially to climate change by adding CO2 and other heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere.

This build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere is like a tub filling with water, where more water flows from the faucet than the drain can take away.

Source: EPA