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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»

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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 Content

  • 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

Entered the Collection: April 2018 Last Reviewed: July 2016

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