Is carbon dioxide a pollutant? Everyone knows an air pollutant can cause all sorts of problems, which is why they are also afraid of any exposure to CO2.
But the truth is that CO2 is not all that bad, especially when you consider its role in maintaining the temperature on Earth.
And there is still confusion when people ask, “how is carbon dioxide a pollutant?”
CO2 is a naturally occurring gas but its concentration has gone up due to human activities, which is why CO2 is considered a pollutant.
What Should You Know about Carbon Dioxide?
At room temperature and atmospheric pressure, carbon dioxide (CO2) is a tasteless, odorless, and nontoxic gas.
One carbon atom and two oxygen atoms make up a CO2 molecule.
CO2 is also important to the Earth’s carbon cycle, which consists of a series of activities that recirculate carbon in different forms throughout the environment.
Human activities like deforestation and burning fossil fuels emit CO2, a crucial heat-trapping (greenhouse) gas.
But the interesting thing to know is that a world devoid of carbon dioxide would be too frigid for human habitation.
Fact: Emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) can also be produced by processes found in nature, such as breathing and volcanic eruptions.
Sources of Carbon Dioxide
Speaking of the sources of CO2, you will find that it is produced through various natural as well as anthropogenic processes.
Some of the most common natural sources include:
- Decomposition of matter
- Ocean release
Eliminating CO2 from the air would make it impossible for plants to produce food. And it is also important for humans.
Most of the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by humans comes from the combustion of fossil fuels, such as:
Fossil fuels release the carbon trapped in the fuels’ molecules into the air along with the fuels’ kinetic energy in the form of heat.
Examples of CO2 Emissions in the Environment
Many industries play a role in increasing CO2 levels in the air. The cement industry is a good example.
It requires burning fossil fuels to heat the cement’s raw materials in a kiln.
Moreover, because of the chemical reaction that occurs when the mixture is heated, cement production significantly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
Similarly, deforestation releases carbon sequestered in forest ecosystems back into the atmosphere.
Sequestration refers to the process by which forests are grown in order to store excess carbon in the wood and soil.
Fact: Around 23% of human-caused emissions of CO2 and other air pollutants are attributable to changes in land use.
Is Carbon Dioxide a Pollutant or Not?
Apparently, it looks like CO2 is indeed a pollutant, but it is not always that simple.
Air pollution regulations do not apply to carbon dioxide because it is a naturally occurring gas in the atmosphere.
Yet, human activity has led to a dramatic rise in atmospheric CO2 concentration.
Like nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane, carbon dioxide contributes to global warming (CH4).
While breathing in low levels of greenhouse gases is not harmful, the increased usage of fossil fuels has led to a greenhouse effect.
Alterations to the land for agriculture and forestry also contribute to rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
And because of all these effects, CO2 is now considered a pollutant.
Global Warming and CO2 as a Pollutant
Owing to the continuous release of greenhouse gases, it is easy to notice the planet’s climate getting warmer by the day.
The greenhouse effect can quickly increase average temperatures and result in various changes in the global climate.
And CO2 has a role to play in changing weather patterns around the world.
Interestingly, the concentration of CO2 is widely dispersed in the outside environment, showing little to no regional variation even inside a city.
But, things change as you step inside, where carbon dioxide is one of the primary indicators of indoor air quality and becomes a pollutant.
Fact: Because of the restricted nature of interior spaces, the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air can quickly rise to levels that are many times higher than the outdoor concentration.
Is Carbon Dioxide a Primary or Secondary Pollutant?
To get a better idea, you first need to know more about what primary and secondary pollutants are.
Pollutants in the air that originate from human activities are called primary air pollutants.
Some of the major examples of primary pollutants include:
- Carbon monoxide
- Particulate matter
- Sulfur oxide
- Nitrous oxide
Chemical interactions in the lower atmosphere create secondary air pollution.
Ozone and secondary organic aerosols are two such examples (haze).
An Important Consideration
It is more challenging to control secondary pollutants because of their distinct synthesis processes and unknown production mechanisms.
They are a normal part of the environment and a source of problems such as photochemical pollution.
Do You Classify CO2 as a Primary or Secondary Pollutant?
Many human activities release large amounts of carbon dioxide directly into the atmosphere, making it a particularly harmful pollutant.
It happens due to activities related to:
- Power plants
- Industrial processes
One may argue that carbon dioxide is a secondary pollutant because it is created when primary pollutants like methane, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides react with atmospheric oxygen.
But, that is not the case.
CO2 is essentially a primary pollutant since the concentration goes up directly through human activities.
It may also be a byproduct of any interaction taking place with other primary pollutants.
Hence, carbon dioxide is classified as a primary pollutant in accordance with the definition of primary and secondary pollutants and the nature of its widespread emissions.
Understanding the Effects of CO2 on the Climate
Carbon dioxide is a major contributor to climate change since it is both a common and powerful greenhouse gas.
It can increase global temperatures by trapping heat in the atmosphere, so it directly contributes to climate change.
More frequent and severe weather events are one immediate consequence of elevated CO2 levels.
But, there are some long-term consequences as well, such as:
- Melting polar ice caps
- Rising sea levels
- Higher temperatures
In addition to these potentially catastrophic effects on the ecosystem, CO2 is also harmful to the human body in high concentrations.
Fact: CO2 occurs naturally in the environment, so it poses no threat at the low concentrations in the air around us.
Health Impact of CO2
Any prolonged exposure to CO2 can lead to a variety of health complications, including the following:
- Elevated blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
Can We Survive without CO2?
Since plant life needs CO2 for survival, its absence would spell doom for all life on Earth.
It is true that climate change is a result of the increased CO2 levels that trap more heat in the atmosphere.
Similarly, excessive carbon dioxide levels inside buildings have been shown to negatively affect brain function.
But, on the other hand, all life on Earth relies on carbon in more ways than you can imagine.
The Role of Carbon on Earth
Carbon is of great importance for life on earth because it is essential in making macromolecules like proteins and DNA.
The carbon dioxide form of this substance is widely distributed throughout the Earth’s atmosphere (CO2).
Carbon is essential for so many reasons, such as:
- The maintenance of Earth’s habitable temperature
- A vital component of the food we eat
- A significant contributor to the energy that powers our global economy
Understanding Carbon Recycling
The majority of carbon on Earth is found in rocks and sediments; the effects can be found in the ocean, the atmosphere, and living things.
These are known as the reservoirs used for carbon recycling.
Several processes return carbon to the atmosphere, including:
- The decomposition of organic matter
- The combustion of fossil fuels
- Volcanic eruptions
Carbon in the ocean is either constantly recycled between the atmosphere and the surface waters or is retained for very long times in the ocean depths.
If anything disrupts this carbon cycle, life on earth will come to a halt.
Is carbon dioxide a pollutant?
Although it occurs naturally, large amounts in the environment classify it as a polluting gas.
CO2 is a major environmental threat because of its high concentrations and the fact that they have increased substantially as a result of human activity.
Nonetheless, despite the fact that extended exposure to CO2 can cause major health concerns, it is still essential for life on Earth.