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Every breath you take

Date: 29th April 2019

I wouldn’t blame you for not worrying about the impact your very exhalation has on the environment. The act of breathing is one of the most natural and instinctive things we do in life.

In and Out.

What happens in that one breath it truly magical. Our lungs are filled with air, which comprises of 78.09% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon and just 0.04% carbon dioxide. Millions of minuscule alveoli (around 480 million) pull oxygen from the lungs into our bloodstream, in exchange for carbon dioxide, which is then exhaled.

This gas exchange equates to 0.04% of CO2 breathed in, to around 5% breathed out. Each and every breath, fifteen times a minute, for every minute of your life.

Now I’m no scientist, so thankfully someone else has gone to the trouble of doing all of the analysis and math. The key result – each day you contribute 0.9 kilograms of additional CO2 to the atmosphere. No fossil fuels required.

That’s nothing I hear you say, not even as much as a kilogram! Well, let’s do a few additional sums, which may put things into greater perspective.

0.9kg per day = 328.73kg CO2 per year (365.25 days)

It’s difficult to imagine just how much CO2 that is, so I’ve listed a few examples below:

  • Emissions from driving over 1,500km in a medium sized car
  • Single passenger’s share of emissions from a flight from Auckland to Dunedin
  • Single passenger’s share of emissions from a cruise from Auckland to Noumea, New Caledonia

Remember, this is all from one person, doing nothing other than breathing for one year.

Why should we worry about these numbers? Well, let’s consider how much CO2 an entire country of people will exhale per year. This is where things get really interesting…

  • New Zealand: Population – 5 million = 1,640 tonnes CO2 per year
  • Australia: Population – 25 million = 8.22 million tonnes CO2 per year
  • United Kingdom: 67 million = 22 million tonnes CO2 per year
  • USA: 329 million = 108 million tonnes CO2 per year
  • China: 1.42 billion = 466 million tonnes CO2 per year

In 2017, New Zealand’s CO2 emissions were calculated at 80 million tonnes. To think that the people of the USA breath out more CO2 than all of the cars, power stations and cows in New Zealand.

I daren’t even think about the effects of belching, farting and human waste! But the thing is, no-one seems to be taking any notice.

No report includes these figures.

Shanghai (population: 24 million) shrouded in smog

There should be no surprise at all that global warming and CO2 levels have spiked just as the global population has.

Seven billion people, doing nothing more than breathing, results in an increase of 2.3 billion tonnes of CO2 per year.

So what to do? For a start, information needs to be made available to those who matter; the policy makers. These figures can’t go unnoticed, and countries need to be aware of the negative impacts made by their growing populations.

The simple fact is, if the data is not available and included in national reports, then nothing will be done about it. Or, we’ll find that our efforts to tackle climate change fall short, because we aren’t looking at the full picture.

It’s always going to be a controversial topic, but I’m going to go out on a limb and address the ever growing elephant in the room…

Planet earth can only care for and support a certain number of people. Whether that number is 5, 8 or 10 billion is contestable, but I’d suggest that we have already passed the tipping point in many countries, where growing human populations have resulted in catastrophic ecological collapse. Yes, humans can survive, but not much else does.

Cover image: © Alain Wong,

Posted in: Blog