Just How Big Is A Tonne Of CO2?

How big is a tonne of CO2

So just how big is a tonne of CO2?  Well, the question came to me in a completely random way.  I’m sure that squeezing bubble wrap is one of life’s guilty pleasures because it sure feels like it is.  I can always be in the mood for a piece of that action; maybe a package turns up and it’s wrapped in half a ton of the stuff.  Having ripped off a piece, you find yourself sitting at your desk, the spherical resistance of the plastic and compressed air against your fingers—a tight squeeze and then that satisfying pop sound.

And here I am a grown adult at my desk, sitting here looking off into the distance, munching my way across each bubble, until either I run out of bubbles or someone else tells me to shut up.

Hold that thought, we’ll come back to the bubbles.

I was asked recently by my son, as he overheard me talking to a client, about how much CO2 they produce when using their mobiles.  Each mobile handset can generate up to 2 tonnes of CO2 per year and there are 80 million mobile phones in the UK alone.  I’d best get it right as he’s greener than me, having set up our recycling bin at home, and what he doesn’t know about the Pacific garbage patch you can write on a postage stamp.  His big thing at the moment is telling us how lizards are being affected by climate change.

He understands that as with all things man-made, there is an environmental impact to owning a mobile phone.  If a user is on their phone typically for two hours a day, (Ofcom figures) that equates to about two tonnes of CO2 generated a year, all that downloading, uploading, all those servers working night and day.  He also understands that it is part of our company strategy to combat that and that we sponsor a tree per tonne of CO2 to help sequester carbon emissions created by your mobile phone usage.

However, what he couldn’t get his head around or visualize is what a tonne of CO2 might look like!  I think most people understand the concept of climate change and its impact on the earth.  But I believe it’s important for him, for all of us, to be able to visualize what CO2 and its ‘volume’ looks like.  Then perhaps you’ll get a better idea and be more able to picture the cost of our actions on the environment, as well as what our deadly foe looks like.

So, what does a tonne of CO2 look like?

Here’s how it went, the sciencey bit.

I went for a sort of Blue Peter answer on this, kept it low-tech.  Even when CO2 is in a gas form, it does indeed have a weight; that’s because it’s made up of atoms.  Atoms have mass and because of gravity, mass has a weight—although this can vary based on its temperature and pressure.

He’s still with me and even I’m not lost on that answer.

So, if you put all those measurements together, then a tonne of CO2 will come up something about the size of a small house.

It was a full 7 seconds before the next question came along.

So how much CO2 does the Earth produce naturally and how much is man-made?  Naturally, the Earth produces around 750 Gigatons of CO2 per year.  Humankind produces around 29 Gigatons of fossil-fuel derived CO2 per year, I answered.

And this is where I say bubble wrap to stop the next slew of questions.

I could see the furrow building above his eyes with that statement.

What had bubble wrap got to do with my business! he exclaimed.

Each mobile handset can generate up to 2 tonnes of CO2 per year

I said, picture this, imagine the earth covered in bubble wrap, like a giant sheet that covers the earth along with the atmosphere.  In each of those bubbles is the gas CO2.  Every time we sign a contract, we plant a tree—we get to pop one of those bubbles.  A tree per bubble, it’s a good trade.  Actually, we need to pop a sheet with 29,000,000,000 bubbles in it.  We, of course, won’t be popping all those bubbles by ourselves.  The Paris accord of 2016 is about enlisting everyone’s help on the planet to do so.  Phew, I had included a big number and an important event in my answer, so I’m off the hook for a bit.

So, for the record; bubble, house, tree.