Why is CO2 so harmful to our planet?

The human activity that puts the most CO2 into the atmosphere is the combustion of any carbon-based material

by Lorenzo Ciotti
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Why is CO2 so harmful to our planet?
© Andreas Rentz / Staff Getty Images

The greenhouse effect naturally present on Earth makes life as we know it possible. Although water is responsible for the majority of the total greenhouse effect, the role of water vapor as a greenhouse gas depends on temperature.

Carbon dioxide plays a significant role in maintaining relatively high temperatures on the planet. Despite its low concentration compared to the other components of the atmosphere, CO2 also plays a fundamental role in maintaining the temperature fairly constant during the day-night temperature range.

Without the greenhouse effect due largely to CO2, the Earth's average surface temperature would be around −18 °C. On Earth, carbon dioxide is the most relevant and directly influenced greenhouse gas from an anthropological point of view.

The concept of atmospheric CO2 increasing ground temperature was first published by Svante Arrhenius in 1896. The increase in radiative forcing due to increased CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere is based on the physical properties of CO2. Increased forcing drives further changes in the Earth's energy balance and, in the long term, in the Earth's climate.

CO2
CO2© Sean Gallup / Staff Getty Images Sport
 

The human activity that puts the most CO2 into the atmosphere is the combustion of any carbon-based material. This particular activity is the basis of many others, such as the production of electricity, the movement of vehicles or the disposal of waste.

Logging and deforestation are also human activities that significantly contribute to the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration. In this case, not by introducing new molecules into the environment, but by removing the organisms that naturally remove it, and therefore encouraging its accumulation. Deforestation is believed to be the second largest cause of global warming, after the burning of carbon-based materials.

Many industrial processes produce CO2 as waste. The most impactful of these is the alloying of iron oxides with carbon coke, to form cast iron. The production of ammonia is also responsible for the formation of CO2 as well as hydrogen. In the summer of 2018, a CO2 shortage occurred in Europe due to the temporary closure of several ammonia plants for maintenance.