This visualization uses Washington D.C.'s National Mall to show the scale of the human coal consumption—and how much CO2 it adds to our atmosphere.
How Much Coal do People Burn Each Year?
Published: November 20, 2020
Narrator: Cooling the planet means, first, stopping more CO2 from entering the atmosphere and then finding ways to remove it.
But just how much CO2 are we talking about?
Scott Denning: Imagine you filled the National Mall, all the way from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol steps, with coal, and you piled it up, all the way to the top of the Washington Monument, 10 times. That would be a gigaton of coal. A “giga” means “billion.” So, that’s a billion tons.
Now, we actually burn 10 times that much carbon every year. People actually go dig that stuff up out of the ground, 10-billion tons of it, and set it on fire in power plants, in engines, in factories, all over the world.
And then, because that carbon has reacted with oxygen, 10-gigatons of carbon is burned, but it creates 37-gigatons of CO2.
Narrator: At our current rate, that’s just one year of CO2 emissions. To blunt the impacts of heating the planet, we need to shrink that number to zero.
But there’s another problem: the gigatons that came before.
Jane Long: The single most important fact about climate change is that the carbon dioxide that we emit into the atmosphere stays there for thousands of years.
Narrator: Year after year, we live with the carbon dioxide we’ve added over time, nearly 1,000-metric-gigatons since the industrial revolution began.
Long: Almost everything we emit stays there, and it’s staying there until you do something about taking it out.
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