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AIR & 

climate change


Activity 9 (Elaborate): CO2 Sources & Solutions

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Activity Summary

In this activity, students learn about where fossil fuels come from, and they make the connection that burning fossil fuels (largely in power plants and vehicles) is what is increasing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. They research local sources of greenhouse gases, and discover that sources of greenhouse gases are also the sources for other air pollutants. Finally, students start brainstorming ways that they can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide they put in the atmosphere.

Activity Objectives & Materials

Approximate Time: 45 minutes


  • Students will understand where fossil fuels come from

  • Students will understand how carbon dioxide gets into the atmosphere from fossil fuels

  • Students will identify local sources of greenhouse gas emissions

  • Students will brainstorm ideas for keeping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere


  • Computer & projector

  • Speakers (for video)

  • Student computers (optional)

  • Plain paper



  • Carbon dioxide and Fossil Fuels graphic organizer

Standards Connection

DCI: ESS 3.D: Global Climate Change

DCI: ESS 3.C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems

SEP: Analyzing Data

CCC: Cause & Effect



Show students this graph of greenhouse gas concentrations over the last 2000 years:

Long term GHG concentrations.jpg

At this point, they should be relatively familiar with graphs showing greenhouse gas concentrations, but make sure they understand what the graph is showing. Then ask them what they think happened to make the graph go up so much in the last 200 years.

  • Use this warmup to gauge students’ familiarity with things like the industrial revolution and human activities like combustion engines, power plants and factories that produce greenhouse gases. These are all topics they’ll explore during this activity. If these ideas are new to them, then use the warmup as a way to frame what they’ll be learning about today. They will come back to this graph in their formative assessment, so don’t take the time now to go into a deep explanation.


1. Frame the Activity

Tell students that as humans, we can deal with climate change in two big ways: we can plan for resilient communities that can decrease the effects of climate change, and we can slow down the rate of climate change by limiting the amount of greenhouse gases we put in the air. During the last activity, they focused on resilience, so today they are going to learn about how to limit greenhouse gas emissions.


2. Introduction to Fossil Fuels

Have students turn to a partner and discuss for a brief moment if they (personally) can create carbon dioxide. When you come back together as a class, have them share what they decided. At least some students should remember that we as humans breathe out carbon dioxide all the time. Each person exhales over 800 pounds of carbon dioxide every year! Tell students that carbon – part of carbon dioxide – is an element that is a very important part of living things. Every living thing on the planet is made of carbon and other elements. So where is all this carbon dioxide coming from that is causing climate change?

Teacher Tip: Students learned a little bit about where greenhouse gases come from in Activity 2, so try to tie in anything they remember from that activity (or previous modules) about where pollution comes from.

Pass out the Carbon Dioxide and Fossil Fuels graphic organizer, and ask students what goes in the first box (carbon) and have them fill it in.


Show students the graphic below and have them read through it.

How Coal Was Formed.jpg

Use questioning to help students understand that coal is mostly made of carbon. For example:

  • Based on this graphic, what coal is made from? (dead plants).

  • What element did we say is a big part of plants? (carbon)

  • What element do you think coal is mostly made of? (carbon). The carbon content of coal varies, but coal commonly has a carbon content of 75%.

Teacher Tip: If you have previously studied the carbon cycle with students, this would be a great opportunity to make a connection back to it.

Next, show students this graphic that shows how oil and natural gas are formed. The processes are very similar except that oil and natural gas formation mostly involves marine animals and plants.

How oil was formed.gif

Ask students what should go in the second line (plants & animals) and third line (coal, oil, and natural gas) in their graphic organizers and have them fill it in.

3. What Do We Do With Fossil Fuels?

Ask students what we do with things like coal, oil, and natural gas to get the energy out of them? (We burn them). Show students the picture below, which shows burning coal:

Burning coal.jpg

Tell students that we burn fossil fuels in power plants to generate electricity and to power things like cars and trucks. But when we burn fossil fuels, the carbon in the fuel combines with oxygen to make carbon dioxide. That is the carbon dioxide that is causing climate change.


Ask students what should go in the fourth line (burn them) and fifth line (carbon dioxide) of their graphic organizers, and have them fill it in.


4. Earth and Carbon Dioxide

To give students a sense of what carbon dioxide in the atmosphere looks like, show them this very cool short video from NASA which models carbon dioxide emissions and dispersion during the course of a year. Before playing the video, asks students to keep an eye out for where the most carbon dioxide emissions are coming from (North America, Europe, and Asia)

If you have already studied photosynthesis, this video also provides an opportunity to talk about why CO2 levels drop in the summer (in the Northern Hemisphere) and go up in the winter.

Additional Media: This video from California Academy of Sciences has a great youth-led explanation of how fossil fuels and made and what problems they pose.

Vox produced an alternative version of NASA’s Earth and CO2 video which highlights some important details. You may wish to show that video instead of NASA’s original.

5. Local Sources of Greenhouse Gases

Ask students if they think there are any sources of greenhouse gases like power plants and factories in the area. After they have had a chance to think about it, go to the local air pollution sources spreadsheet: and display it for students to see. Go to the tab for greenhouse gases and sort the total emissions column Z to A. This will bring up a list of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the DC, MD, VA, WV area. Have students turn to the back side of their handout, and answer the first two questions together:

  • The top 10 sources of greenhouse gases in the area are all power plants (electricity generation)

  • Other sources in the top 30 are factories/mills (pulp & paper, cement, and chemical manufacturing)

GHG Database.jpg

Next, look up local sources of greenhouse gases. You can do this by filtering the list for a particular county or zip code. To filter, click the little triangle at the top of the column you want to filter, click “clear”, then click on the individual county or zip code to add it to the list. You can also sort the column and search for your county or zip code. Have students identify the top local sources of greenhouse gases and them to their papers. Ask students if they’ve ever heard of these sources.

Modification: If student computers are available, have students use them to look up the information in the spreadsheet themselves.

Data Source: The information for the local pollution source database comes from the National Emissions Inventory published by the US EPA. The database is updated every three years. These data come from the 2017 version of the database. Learn more about the NEI here.

6. Greenhouse Gases and Other Pollutants

Switch over to the “Criteria pollutants” tab and sort the total emissions column by ZàA. Click the emissions units filter and uncheck the “tons” option so the list is sorted by the highest emissions sources. Tell students that this is a list of different kinds of air pollutants that are called criteria pollutants. Some criteria pollutants are also greenhouse gases, and some are not. Have students look at the list of the top emissions sources. Do they notice any similarities? You may want to go back to the original greenhouse gas emissions list (not the local list) so students can compare. What do they see? (the top sources are mostly the same). Ask them what this tells them about how different kinds of air pollution are related (many different kinds of air pollution come from the same sources). Have students answer questions 4 and 5 on their handouts.

7. What Can We Do?

Show students the infographic below, and ask them which sector they think most of the greenhouse gases they add to the atmosphere come from (most likely electricity and transportation).

GHG emissions sources infographic.png

Now that they know how greenhouse gases get into the atmosphere, they can start thinking about how to slow the rate of climate change.

Have students start brainstorming on their handout things that they can do to prevent climate change. Encourage them to be as specific as possible (ex. “Turn of my Xbox when I am done playing” vs. “use less electricity”).


Once students have had a chance to make a list on their own, have them share their lists with others in a small group. Give each group a sheet of paper so they can make a list for the whole group with all of their ideas.


When students are done, thank them for thinking about ways to protect the Earth. Then collect the lists and tell students that they will come back to these ideas during their next activity.

Cause & Effect Connection: When students are considering how to slow the rate of climate change, consider having them look back at the cause & effect chain they developed in Activity 4 and thinking about ways that they can “break the chain.”

Looking ahead: The “Doing our Part” activity in this module (which comes up next) involves students making a plan to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions or build resilience into their community. As soon as you have their brainstorm sheets, begin thinking about how to tie their ideas into this activity. You might want to type up students lists so it is easier to share it with them during the next activity.

8. Formative Assessment

Display the graph up from the warmup so all students can see it:

Long term GHG concentrations.jpg

Have students write a short explanation of why the graph goes up so much towards the end. Their answer should include what they learned about fossil fuels and how humans use them. Even if students haven’t learned about the industrial revolution, they should be able to conclude that this was the time we started burning lots of fossil fuels (and discovered others) to make electricity, and around the time that cars were invented that burned fossil fuels. They may also realize that human population has grown a lot during this time period, which also contributes to the big spike in CO2 levels in the atmosphere.