Why Greenhouse Gas Emissions are Turning Up the Heat on Business

Understanding carbon emissions and their impact on business

Why Greenhouse Gas Emissions are Turning Up the Heat on Business


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The rise of carbon emissions from fossil fuel use in recent years is spurring movement to decarbonize — and it’s important for businesses to understand the challenges ahead.

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carbon emissionsAs policies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions roll out globally, business operations are shifting to help guide the world toward a cleaner, more sustainable future. As much as we at Emerald are aware of the daily news about greenhouse gas emissions and efforts to decarbonize, we know most people don’t think much about emissions as they go about their daily lives. Our goal with this blog is to increase collective understanding and clarify urgency for businesses and community leaders who are best-positioned to reduce emissions in their organizations and communities.

The Basics on Emissions

Two terms dominate the news on emissions: greenhouse gas emissions and carbon emissions. The term carbon emissions specifically refers to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from natural and human activities, while greenhouse gas emissions refers to a broader set of emissions inclusive of carbon, but also methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, and others. Natural emissions have always occurred, but there has been a dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions from human activities since the industrial revolution, with carbon dioxide being the most abundant. 

The creation of coal-powered machinery had a profound impact on manufacturing and led to high economic development and further innovations. Widespread industrialization also led to the adoption of other fossil fuel energy sources like natural gas and oil, creating a reliance on carbon-intensive power generation. With carbon dioxide being the primary greenhouse gas released by human activities, there is a general consensus that carbon emissions should be the priority as people and businesses look to curb emissions. 

climate change causes

Image Credit: NPS.gov

Where Do Carbon Emissions Come From?

Carbon emissions have been occurring since the dawn of earth. Various natural mechanisms, such as volcanic eruptions, forestry processes, and leaking from peatlands, release carbon into the atmosphere. A homeostasis, or equilibrium, developed over billions of years, but now human activities are shifting this balance. 

Most actions that we carry out have a direct or indirect carbon price. This is the result of a range of activities that require the combustion of fossil fuels. Electricity, transportation, waste disposal, manufacturing, heating... the list goes on.

In the U.S., carbon emissions are broken down into source categories:

  • Transportation (35%) = Combustion of gas and diesel to power vehicles
  • Electricity (31%) = Energy to power homes, businesses, and industry
  • Industry (16%) = Industrial processes that produce carbon dioxide (manufacturing iron, chemicals, etc.)
  • Residential & Commercial (11%) = Burning fossil fuels directly (heating, cooling, etc.) or as a byproduct of construction

Energy is needed to power almost every aspect of our businesses and when 60% of the total energy generated in the U.S. comes directly from fossil fuels, it is hard avoid emissions. The availability of cheap and reliable energy from fossil fuels was foundational to the industrial revolution and has led to the development of our modern society, so our reliance on this energy is no surprise. 

Why Do We Care About Emissions?

Late in the 19th century, a Swedish Nobel Prize-winning chemist theorized that the combustion of fossil fuels could release gases that would be trapped in the earth’s atmosphere, potentially affecting temperatures and other climatic processes. It would be over a half a century later before an American scientist, Wallace Broecker, coined the term global warming.

Since the 1950s, significant research has gone into understanding carbon dioxide and the impact it has on our planet’s atmosphere. And ultimately, carbon dioxide was linked directly to the changing climatic conditions being recorded and, increasingly, felt globally.

How this happens is relatively simple. Typically, emissions are released into the atmosphere where they are absorbed or used in natural processes, creating a balanced cycle. However, increased emissions have gone well past the planet’s ability to use them, leaving an excess amount of gas trapped in the atmosphere. In turn, this gas traps heat. 

The Economic Burden of Emissions

The additional heat contributes to higher temperatures, melting ice sheets, warmer seas, sea level rise, erosion, and so on. Excess emissions have created a new cycle that pushes current environmental conditions to the limit, and continued production of greenhouse gases is exacerbating the situation further.

The impacts of carbon emissions are not solely atmospheric or environmental--they can be felt in our societies, economies, and our health. “The effects of climate change can be expected to shave 11 percent to 14 percent off global economic output by 2050 compared with growth levels without climate change,” explains Christopher Flavelle in The New York Times. “That amounts to as much as $23 trillion in reduced annual global economic output worldwide as a result of climate change.” In this article, he quotes a 2021 report from global insurance giant Swiss RE that details the risks of higher temperatures not only on weather and related events, but also on business through fluctuating asset values and increased cost of doing business. 

It is for these reasons that global governments are working together to decarbonize and shift to a more sustainable development model.

Emission Impacts on Business

As a result of government policy, we can expect changing emissions requirements in the private sector. This is already being seen in cities around the world. For example, Tokyo has a Cap-and-Trade program in place that requires large businesses to reduce their emissions below a specific baseline. If emissions requirements are not met, businesses are fined.

pre-industrial periodSimilarly, in the U.S., President Biden’s 2030 50% greenhouse gas reduction target is a lofty goal that will require major contributions from the private sector. It is only a matter of time before emissions targets are put into place for U.S.-based businesses.

If global commitments to reduce emissions to control rising temperatures are met, there will still be a negative economic impact on gross domestic product (GDP). That impact will be less, however, than if nothing is done.

Understanding your business’s emissions can be a challenging process and reducing emissions can be even more complicated. Navigating certifications, staying current with changing standards, and implementing sustainable processes requires industry-specific understanding, and Emerald Built Environments is here to help. We stay on top of current regulation and are at the forefront of sustainable practices.

Get in touch today to learn how your business can reduce emissions, improve sustainability, and become a leader in the sustainability movement of your industry.

Let Us Help You Set Your Goals

Bonus Video!

You can also learn more by watching our video on this subject, Who Needs to Know - Greenhouse Gas Emissions Part 1. Increasingly, businesses are paying attention to their greenhouse gas emissions and creating plans to reduce them. Their focus comes because employees, stakeholders, investors, or customers demand it. In this video, Laura Steinbrink reviews who needs to know about carbon emissions.

Greenhouse Gas Video

Guide to Energy MOdeling

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