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Atmospheric Carbon: Can We Offset the Increase?

Jocelyn Boucher, Maine Maritime Academy, On the Cutting Edge

This is a multi-step activity that helps students measure, investigate, and understand the increase in atmospheric CO2 and the utility of carbon offsets. It also enables students to understand that carbon offsets, through reforestation, are not sufficient to balance increases in atmospheric C02 concentration.

Activity takes about 1-2 class periods.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
High School: 3 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 6 Science and Engineering Practices

Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • This activity can be extended to consider the effectiveness of other carbon mitigation strategies. For example, students could calculate how many trees would need to be planted for their own personal carbon emissions, or they could create a combination strategy that consists of several different approaches. The key is to use math to learn if the solutions are feasible or not.
  • The activity could be done in small, in-class groups, following a unit on greenhouse gases and the enhanced greenhouse effect. It might also be assigned for homework prior to a unit on ocean acidification.
  • Other tips are provided in the activity overview.

About the Science

  • This activity uses a series of basic high school mathematics and chemistry formulas and conversions to estimate the global annual increase in atmospheric CO2 and the annual acreage of new forest that would be required to accommodate this increase.
  • Comments from expert scientist:
    Scientific strengths:
    - Great use of unit conversion practice!
    - Understanding the concept of scaling from global to individual
    - practice reading CO2 emission graphs

About the Pedagogy

  • This activity has students use math to answer a common question: How many trees would it take to offset climate change? The exercise is designed to open a dialogue to more questions, rather than to provide a single solution to the problem. By using a mathematical approach, students learn more details about carbon emissions and CO2 in the atmosphere.
  • Students are guided through a series of calculations to determine if it is possible to plant enough forests to mitigate all of the carbon added to the atmosphere each year.
  • Some familiarity with basic chemistry and math is needed for this activity.
  • Student worksheet and instructor answer key are provided.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

High School

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 3

HS-ESS2.D3:Changes in the atmosphere due to human activity have increased carbon dioxide concentrations and thus affect climate.

HS-ESS2.D4:Current models predict that, although future regional climate changes will be complex and varied, average global temperatures will continue to rise. The outcomes predicted by global climate models strongly depend on the amounts of human-generated greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere each year and by the ways in which these gases are absorbed by the ocean and biosphere.

HS-PS1.B3:The fact that atoms are conserved, together with knowledge of the chemical properties of the elements involved, can be used to describe and predict chemical reactions.

Science and Engineering Practices: 6

Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Engaging in Argument from Evidence

HS-P4.1:Analyze data using tools, technologies, and/or models (e.g., computational, mathematical) in order to make valid and reliable scientific claims or determine an optimal design solution.

HS-P5.2:Use mathematical, computational, and/or algorithmic representations of phenomena or design solutions to describe and/or support claims and/or explanations.

HS-P5.3:Apply techniques of algebra and functions to represent and solve scientific and engineering problems.

HS-P5.5:Apply ratios, rates, percentages, and unit conversions in the context of complicated measurement problems involving quantities with derived or compound units (such as mg/mL, kg/m3, acre-feet, etc.).

HS-P6.4:Apply scientific reasoning, theory, and/or models to link evidence to the claims to assess the extent to which the reasoning and data support the explanation or conclusion.

HS-P7.2:Evaluate the claims, evidence, and/or reasoning behind currently accepted explanations or solutions to determine the merits of arguments.

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