Independent Study, Spring 2019


Burning fossil fuels causes anthropogenic climate change: the warming of the earth’s climate system because of increased atmospheric CO2 (IPCC). These fuels are made up of buried prehistoric life forms, encapsulated underground in large enough concentrations that the carbon in their tissues forms petrochemicals instead of sedimentary rock or fossils.  When humans extract and burn these chemicals for energy, CO2 is emitted (Schlesinger and Bernhardt).  

Since the industrial revolution in the early 1800s, the developed world has used fossil fuels for our main source of energy.  We are incredibly dependent on fossil fuels, using them not only as fuel to manufacture consumer goods, drive our transportation, and heat our buildings, but also as the chemical building blocks for important materials like plastic.  Fossil fuels have allowed for major advances in medical technology, in food production, and in science.  They have also caused many environmental disasters and are currently the root of climate change. 

Because fossil fuels were separate from the pre-industrial carbon cycle, burning them creates an additional flow which causes a buildup of carbon in the atmosphere.  This buildup causes warming of the earth’s climate system, which manifests itself in many ways through a complex system of feedback loops.  The overall effect is generally predicted to be a warming and destabilization of the earth’s climate, likely to the detriment of humans who have flourished during a very stable part of climate history (Schlesinger and Bernhardt).

Because we are aware of the potential dangers of climate change, efforts have been made to reduce our carbon emissions and mitigate climate change. This is difficult because economic welfare is closely linked to carbon emissions in our current economy. While international emissions reduction agreements have been signed, few of the goals have been reached, and the United States in particular has been reticent in participating (Cooper, Green, Brown et al.).  

All industrial activities today cause carbon emissions.  Even when some of the energy comes from renewable resources like solar or wind, the development of infrastructure causes emissions. Perhaps more ubiquitously: buildings create emissions. Climate control of commercial and residential buildings is responsible for 31% of US carbon emissions (EPA). Lifecycle analyses of buildings in the US show that on average 30% of associated emissions are embodied in construction materials (Fenner et al).  Concrete is particularly emissive, because CO2 is released not only during the energy generation that drives the processes, but in chemical releases as concrete is produced.  Concrete production accounts for 9.5% of anthropogenic emissions (Olivier et al). The emissions associated with concrete building construction, and the potential to use mass timber construction as a carbon-capture alternative, are discussed in more depth here.


Brown, C., Alexander, P., Arneth, A., Holman, I., Rounsevell, M. (2019) Achievement of Paris climate goals unlikely due to time lags in the land system. Nature Climate Change 9, 203–208.

Cooper, M. (2018) Governing the global climate commons: The political economy of state and local action, after the U.S. flip-flop on the Paris Agreement. Energy Policy, 118: 440-454.

EPA. Inventory of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and sinks: 1990–2016. EPA 430-P-18-001; 2018.

Fenner, A. E., Kibert, C. J., Woo, J., Morque, S., Razkenari, M., Hakim, H., Lu, X. (2018) The carbon footprint of buildings: A review of methodologies and applications. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. 94: 1142-1152.

Green, A. (2018). On thin ice: Meeting canada's paris climate commitments. Journal of Environmental Law and Practice, 32(1), 99-135.

F.A. Rodrigues, I. Joekes (2011) Cement industry: sustainability, challenges and perspectives. Environmental Chemistry Letters, 9 (2) 151-166.

Olivier JGJ, Janssens-Maenhout G, Muntean M and Peters JAHW (2014), Trends in global CO2 emissions; 2014 Report, The Hague: PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency; Ispra: European Commission, Joint Research Centre.

Schlesinger W.H. and Bernhardt E.S. (2013) Biogeochemistry: An Analysis of Global Change, 3e. Academic Press.