Transcript for Episode 1: How to Measure Climate Impact

This is the transcript of Episode 1: How to Measure Climate Impact of the How to Make a Difference podcast. Go to the episode page to listen to this episode and for the show notes. Furthermore, we encourage you to read our blog post about measuring climate impact.

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Welcome everyone to this episode of How to Make a Difference!

Chinmai Gupta: Hey everyone!

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Today, we’re talking about how to measure impact. 

If you’ve listened to our first episode, you will know that the question that keeps us up at night is what can we do to save the planet? And what will have the most impact?

When we talk about making a difference, what we mean is being able to actually measure and quantify that difference.

And luckily, when it comes to climate, the answer is really obvious. It’s in terms of CO2, and I’m sure everyone is well versed with what causes climate change, but just to set the scene, let’s quickly talk about the main culprits. 

Chinmai Gupta: Sure. I think it would be appropriate to kind of start talking about greenhouse gases and how they affect the earth’s climate, temperature, etc. So greenhouse gases trap the sun’s heat in the atmosphere. And that’s how they sustain life. Without greenhouse gases, the earth would be too cold to sustain life. 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: So you’re saying they’re actually good?

Chinmai Gupta: They’re actually good in the right quantities. And for thousands of years earth has had it’s own mechanisms of balancing these gasses in the atmosphere. But since the mid 20th century, human activities like burning of fossil fuels or cutting down of rainforests have been huge drivers of climate change, as nature has simply been unable to cope.

To give you an idea, net emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere just from human activity, has increased by 35% from 1990 to 2010 – in a timeframe of 20 years. 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yeah, that is a lot!

Chinmai Gupta: So that’s quite significant. 

And more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere leads to more heat being trapped which leads to global warming.

Many of these greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years after being released. So it’s not just us being affected by these, it’s many future generations to come. 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: So actually, when we talk about greenhouse gases, what you should know is that CO2 is actually just one of many greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. And the reason we talk only about CO2, or often only about CO2 is that it’s the one that contributes most to climate change. So, three-quarters of emissions, come from CO2.

But just to give you a few examples, other greenhouse gases are, for example, methane. And so methane actually has a 28 times stronger effect in heating the climate than CO2. Other greenhouse gases are nitrous oxide, and now let’s get to the real, really bad ones, which are fluorinated gases, or they’re also called hydrofluorocarbons. And they can have up to 10,000 times the effect that CO2 has.

Chinmai Gupta: Oh, wow!

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yeah! So basically what it means, when we say that it has a 10000 time stronger effect it means that it’s 10000 times as efficient in trapping heat. 

And for easier comparison – emissions from non-CO2 greenhouse gases are usually measured in CO2-equivalents. So just give you an example, one ton of methane corresponds to 28 tons of CO2-equivalents. 

And, Chinmai already mentioned that global emissions have risen like crazy in the past. And currently, if we include all the greenhouse gas emissions, so not just CO2, but all the other ones, global emissions per year are roughly 50 Gigatons of CO2-equivalents per year. So that’s a 50, with nine zeros.

Chinmai Gupta: Oh, wow!

Elisabeth Ignasiak: The problem is that if we keep emitting greenhouse gases at the rate that we do now, we’re in real big trouble, really really soon, because there’s just so much carbon we can emit before temperatures on earth get really uncomfortable.

Chinmai Gupta: Yeah, it might be worth talking about the Paris Agreement and carbon budgets. So based on the Paris Agreement our goal in this century is to limit global warming to under 2 degrees, preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to preindustrial times. And this is if we want to avoid widespread, irreversible climate change effects. 

And what is the carbon budget? Just like the household budget, a carbon budget is the amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted or released into the atmosphere, for a given level of global warming.

So based on the IPCC, which is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, this budget currently stands at 500 Gt of carbon dioxide. This means that at current emission levels, we will run out of our carbon budget by 2030. So we’ve got less than 10 years to save the planet. 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: What happens when we run out of our budget?

Chinmai Gupta: Basically, we’re screwed. 

So if current trends continue. The world is likely to pass the 1.5 degrees Celsius mark by about 2050. Unless we find a way to reach net zero emissions. This means we have to reduce emissions drastically between 2020 and 2030 to meet our 1.5 degree Celsius goal.

Elisabeth Ignasiak: So, according to a recent report – the Global Carbon Budget 2020 report – the COVID-19 crisis has actually led to a reduction of CO2 emissions, equivalent to 7%, compared to the 2019 figures. And leading UK researchers say that this is actually the amount of reduction that we must have every year to stay on track with the Paris goal. 

Chinmai Gupta: So wait – Are you saying that we might have to live like this, for the next 10 years in order to meet our climate goals? 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Well, what’s clear is that the changes required are big and massive. And that’s exactly why we’re trying to focus on the things that really make a difference. So we need the level of impact that a pandemic like COVID had, but obviously without the sacrifice, or at least we want to minimize the sacrifice as much as possible. 

Chinmai Gupta: Yes! We have to reduce everything, but without the world going to the way it is right now. Everyone’s suffering, right? 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yeah. 

Chinmai Gupta: There are no cars on the street, but that also means people are not able to meet their relatives in hospitals, or whatever you know… meet their parents,… things like that. 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yeah. And maybe hearing this level of change that is required makes you feel hopeless, but, there’s actually a surprising amount of things that you can do. So stay tuned for our next episodes!

So to get back to the main question that we started this episode with. How do you measure impact? It’s actually really simple. So every ton of CO2-equivalents that is either taken out of the atmosphere, or prevented from getting into the atmosphere in the first place, is a good ton of CO2-equivalents.

And this has all been very abstract. So, let us make this a little bit more concrete. We want to give you a few examples that make it a little bit more tangible what a ton of CO2 is.

Chinmai Gupta: So one ton of CO2 corresponds to driving 4300 kilometres, or 2700 miles by car, which would be like driving from Madrid to Moscow. 

Or the average emission of one passenger on a return flight from Paris to New York.

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Or, it means heating one small room for one year.

Chinmai Gupta: In comparison, it takes 100 trees one year to absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide. 

Elisabeth, weren’t you calculating what a ton of CO2 would look like in bubble wrap?

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yeah, I can tell you some facts about bubble wrap. First you need to know what the volume is, of a ton of CO2, right? So I did some calculations: Basically, the volume of a ton of CO2 at atmospheric pressure, which is what we have on the surface of the Earth, is about 556 cubic meters. And so the question is, how much is how much CO2 can you fit in a bubble, right? In a bubble wrap bubble. So I took one of my bubble wraps, and I measured the radius and the height of a single bubble. 

Chinmai Gupta: Oh my god!

Elisabeth Ignasiak: And so it turns out, the volume of one bubble is 212 cubic millimeters. Divide that by each other, and you get 2.6 billion bubbles that you can fill with a ton of CO2

Obviously there’s big bubbles and small bubbles – So I went for the small bubbles.

So if you take all those bubbles, and you have how much area do those bubbles cover? And so it turns out that with those 2.6 billion bubbles, you can cover an area of more than 300,000 square meters. Or roughly 63 soccer fields, or football fields, depending, I guess, on the country.

Chinmai Gupta: And that’s one ton of carbon dioxide.

Elisabeth Ignasiak: That’s one ton of carbon dioxide, in bubble wrap. 

Chinmai Gupta: I’m sure that is a stat that everyone will remember.

Elisabeth Ignasiak: I hope so. I spent a lot of time calculating it. Okay, not that much time, but I had fun doing it.

Chinmai Gupta: Now I know what you do, when you say you’re busy!

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Indeed.

So, now that we understand how much a ton of CO2 is (in bubble wrap), we can use this as a reasonably straightforward measure for climate impact. So both on global scale. And on an individual scale. 

Chinmai Gupta: So what does carbon dioxide mean for me as an individual? 

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Average CO2 emissions per person actually varies from country to country.

For example, per capita emissions in the US are 16 tons per year. Germany, they’re 10 tons per year. In China, they’re seven tons per year and in India they’re two tons per year. 

Chinmai Gupta: So however, to stay within the 1.5 degrees Celsius target, each of us only have a budget of 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year on average.

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Yeah and with that in mind, I can compare the effect of various actions, and judge which ones have the most impact in terms of CO2.

And so this is exactly what we will do in future episodes. For every topic we discuss, we will give you the number of what that impact is in CO2 for the topic we’re discussing.

So as a small teaser, listen to our next episodes, where we’ll talk about sustainable banking. And as you will hear: Just changing your bank account, like not doing anything, not buying anything, just changing your bank account has a huge impact in terms of CO2. So stay tuned! 

Chinmai Gupta: Check out our blog, where we will have all the numbers, and all the links.

Follow us on your favourite social media channel and see you next time! Bye, bye!

Elisabeth Ignasiak: Bye!