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Carbon Neutral - What Does It Mean?

In 2006 the New Oxford American Dictionary declared "carbon neutral" its "Word of the Year." In announcing the winning word, the dictionary's Editor-in-Chief, Erin McKean, said, "The increasing use of the word "carbon neutral" reflects not just the greening of our culture, but the greening of our language.
When you see first graders trying to make their classrooms carbon neutral, you know the word has become mainstream." Mainstream? Really? Well, carbon neutral may be mainstream, but how many of us really know what it means? Do you? Some might say carbon neutral is a self-defining word—neutral of carbon. Okay…so what does THAT mean?
Obviously, defining carbon neutral is neither simple nor straightforward, either. In fact, it's hard to define carbon neutral without first talking about another new, head-scratching word—carbon footprint. Every person living on the planet has what is called a carbon footprint, that is, the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases each person is responsible for emitting into the atmosphere. And not only people have carbon footprints, but so does that chair you're sitting on, the computer you're using, the house you're sheltered in, and the car you drive.
Schools, hospitals, businesses, industries, countries, cats, dogs, food, lakes, jungles, forests, sparrows, polar bears, guppies, toothbrushes, garbage cans, ad nauseam, do, too. In short, everything that exists on planet Earth has a carbon footprint.
The problem is that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere have been increasing exponentially the last couple of hundred years, brought about by human activities, namely the industrial revolution and its aftermath. The buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has become unsustainable, leading to global warming and climate change.
Being carbon neutral means that you recognize your contribution to global warming and take personal responsibility to offset your carbon footprint—the effect of your personal greenhouse gas emissions—so that your activities no longer contribute to global warming.
It's been estimated that, on average, 25% of North American emissions come from the personal activities of humans, but that doesn't figure in the carbon emission of all the things we consume or buy—that chair, computer or popcorn you're eating right now, for example. Keep in mind that greenhouse gas-producing energy was required to grow or manufacture those things, and then there's the shipping, packaging, etc., etc. The point is though, striving to become carbon neutral by making changes in our personal lives and homes can have a tremendously positive impact on the environment.
Now granted, we don't live in a vacuum. We work for organizations; we are members of communities; and, those of us who are lucky enough to live in a democracy have the power to vote. We can take the carbon neutral effort beyond the home and into the community and ballot box, too, but we have to start somewhere. The easiest place is in personal action and at home.
If first graders are working to make their classrooms carbon neutral, then maybe we can pitch in, too, and help. After all, they are the ones who will inherit this mess we've been creating.
Check out the ways you can make change.
What You Can Do
Spread the word
  • Talk about becoming carbon neutral to friends, at parties, and in groups.
  • Read a book that explains the benefits of being carbon neutral.
  • Find ways to reduce your carbon footprint and slow global warming in your lifetime.
Where you can buy it
Global Warming: The Signs and the Science
Hell and High Water: Global Warming
Global Warming Cycling Jersey
Get the Facts
Wikipedia - Carbon Neutral
Carbon Neutral - What Does It Mean?
Global Warming - Union of Concerned Scientists

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