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Carbon-neutral communities

Carbon has been receiving a lot of bad press, which is a little surprising. After all, carbon is the foundation of all life on Earth. It makes up 18.5 percent of human body mass. Plants need carbon to survive. A diamond is essentially highly concentrated carbon. So it can't be that bad, can it?

Environmentally speaking, the problem occurs when an atom of carbon combines with two atoms of oxygen to form carbon dioxide (CO2), which is released into the atmosphere as a gas via respiration by people and animals, by volcanic eruptions and, more importantly, by the combustion of fossil fuels, deforestation and some manufacturing processes.

Although carbon dioxide is considered a trace gas in the atmosphere, its concentration has been rising steadily over the past century, along with other greenhouse gases. In the upper atmosphere, these gases absorb infrared radiation from the sun, trapping heat and creating an imbalance in the earth's temperature.

In 2008, ground broke on Masdar City, a 4-square-mile community located in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates on the Arabian Peninsula. When completed in 2016, Masdar City will be the world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste community.

The amount of carbon dioxide released by a person, structure or other entity is referred to as its "carbon footprint," and there's been a lot of buzz about the need to reduce this footprint. There are a number of ways to offset, or compensate for, one's carbon footprint. Two communities in particular have made headlines with their plans to eliminate or offset carbon emissions completely.

The city will be powered by solar energy, and every building will meet green design standards, while a rapid-transport system will serve the city's 100,000 inhabitants. In addition, programs will promote resource recycling, biodiversity and sustainable practices.

On a greater scale, the country of Costa Rica has stated that it intends to be completely carbon-neutral by 2021. The country plans to achieve its goal by reducing reliance on fossil-fuel-fired power plants, and by generating more power from alternative methods such as wind and geothermal. In addition, it will promote the use of hybrid vehicles and increase tree plantings to offset carbon emissions.

Like the Masdar City initiative, it's an indication of what's possible when individuals, communities and industries work together. For more information, go to www.masdar.ae (the Masdar Initiative) or www.visitcostarica.com (the official site of Costa Rica).