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The carbon economy is coming

May 15, 2007

With all the global warming reports rolling in, the Supreme court’s ruling that CO2 is a pollutant and direction that the EPA should move to regulate it, we appear to be moving toward a carbon economy.  

Estimates are that in the last 100 years, our world has gotten about .6 degree C warmer.   Why?   Well, CO2 levels have risen, and are reportedly at the highest levels in the last 650,000 years.   Most media and legislative focus appears to be on the CO2 production side of the equation, so let’s start there.

What makes CO2 and how can we reduce it’s production?  We do.   We breath it out when we exhale.  I don’t imagine anyone is going to enact mandatory breathing caps – being allotted only so many breaths per year. 

Ok, what else emits CO2?  Pretty much everything.  There are a lot of ‘smoking guns’ – coal and natural gas power plants, and of course, the political favorite, vehicle emissions.  So, we need to reduce the amount we produce.  Over time, we can develop and introduce more efficient machines that produce less C02 per unit of work / distance.  In the near term, economic measures can be applied to change behavior.   If we look to current European legislation and concepts discussed here, I think we will get a general sense of it.   Basically, everything will be made to cost more, so you’ll have to use less of it.   I suspect derivative inflation would likely follow, which would further slow consumption and growth, along with constriction of the money supply and rising interest rates. 

From that interview, I come away with the impression that governments will either seek  to  practically limit carbon emissions by adding additional tax on fuels, which will reduce the number of miles people drive, OR force them to drive more fuel efficient vehicles.  This could mean people would conduct less discretionary travel, become more efficient in their trips and commutes, and make use of more mass transit, which in many places outside of big cities, will change livestyles.   Of course, everything will get more expensive with the add on impacts to manufacturing and transportation.  I suspect there would be some job losses throughout the economy as everything re-adjusts to new demand levels.  Another approach is that the costs could be added onto the producers themselves, which will drive up the cost of everything from the source.   Manufacturers & producers can buy and trade credits against their caps.   As a result some products become disproportionately expensive or cheap.  Probably, most people wouldn’t otherwise choose the cheap ones.  

In theory, these ‘carbon taxes’, no matter where applied, serve two purposes.  Firstly, an economic throttle to regulate use, and secondarily, a source of funding to fuel development of more efficient alternatives.  (couldn’t resist the pun)

What other alternatives could we employ along with, or instead of some of these measures?  What if we could just get rid of some of the CO2 we already have?

What gets rid of CO2?  Plants do.  In fact, they not only take CO2 out of circulation, but they give us back O2, which we need to keep breathing.  A rather convenient deal there.  Except that we seem to be cutting down the trees and paving over everything for more shopping, living, working, and driving room, all things that put CO2 right back without the benefit of the plants to get rid of it.  It’s easy to fathom why levels are on the rise.   The concept of plants taking out the CO2 in mass is talked about as a ‘Carbon Sink’.  It is being studied now, to see just how effective plants will be at this task in the years to come.

Most of the media, and governmental  attention is on the CO2 production side of the equation.  I think the other side of the equation needs equal or greater focus – the potential for exchange of CO2.  As our population grows, we are displacing more and more plants around the world.  For example, the rain forests are decreasing in size by an estimated 53,000 square miles per year.  Remember 10, 15 years ago when all those TV ads were whining about the rain forests and we did little about it?  How much of the world’s “carbon sinks” are now gone?  Can we put them back?  If so, where?

Doing something meaningful is going to be a large pill for everyone to swallow.  It really means slowing growth and development, applying “fixes” to the largest mass emitters, and forcibly modifying behavior through economic measures.  Generally, making some things comparatively too expensive to keep doing.  It should also mean putting back as much vegetation as we can. Parks with grass and flowers are not enough, and neither are the few trees planted at the ends of parking lot rows at the local Wal-mart that displaced 100 acres of dense growth trees.

I come to the conclusion that we have to work both sides of the equation to reduce CO2 levels, and, we need to look further than greenhouse gasses as the total cause of global warming.  Working only one piece of the puzzle strikes me as both ineffective and economically untenable.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2007 3:52 pm

    I completely agree. Media attention (and probably science as well) focuses on emissions of C02, probably because humans cause most of it. Yet, the absorption part of it, as you state, is equally important. Ont thing we should of learned by now is that earth lives on an equilibrium, and that no matter how deep we get into studying ecosystems, or natural processes we always oversee some variables.

    Although plants and forests absorb enormous quantities of CO2, I think the main recycler is the ocean through Phytoplankton Carbon Dioxide absorption. And we are doing zip to preserve the oceans (or the forests… or almost anything). Matrix’s Phrase “humans are the virus” comes to mind.

    Just the other day I was watching a documentary on global Dimming (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_dimming), which said that as Aerosols caused this, and CO2 caused global warming, they both countered each other. As countries enforce laws against global dimming emissions faster than they do for CO2 emissions this causes global warming to skyrocket.

    Add to this peak oil… and the future looks grim. Yet I believe that human inventive can overcome any crisis. Some of the alternatives scare me more than fossil oil. Biodiesel, for instance can have a huge negative impact. In Argentina, for instance vast areas have been turned from perfectly productive to desert-like through mono-cultures; this drains the soil, and renders it useless.

    As usual it is not that a technology is bad “per se”, but the way we apply it is awful.

    I think we might be at the very frontier of some deep changes; but then again, earth seems to be much stronger than we think it is.

  2. May 20, 2007 3:57 pm

    PS: here’s the documentary I mentioned:
    http://video.google.ca/videoplay?docid=39520879762623193&q=global+dimming

  3. December 12, 2008 12:08 am

    currently i don’t have a catalytic converter on my car.   i’d like to think i’m doing my part to save the environment by eliminating my vehicle’s ability to produce CO2. 😀

    it also gets 34~36 MPG highway if i keep my foot out of it.   toyota prius be damned!   haha! 😛

    in all seriousness, we’re actually planting and producing more trees worldwide than ever before, thus cutting down on CO2.   but, we don’t hear about it in the media because they’d rather we be scared that we’re going to blow up mother earth.   i honestly feel that the whole topic of CO2 emissions is overrated but admittedly haven’t fit all of the puzzle pieces together.   there are two sides to the story and one of them still remains incomplete.

  4. December 13, 2008 5:23 am

    Erik,

    Since I wrote this piece, we seem to be heading down the “carbon offsets” cap and trade system road. Local utility Progress Energy (electric) is running radio ads suggesting that for only an addition $4 per month added to our bill we consumers can do our part by purchasing carbon offsets.

    What total BS ! They are trying create another source of revenue, or just use the consumer to fund the updates needed to meet governmental regs. What a racket. What beats me about it, is that locally we are hooked to a nuke, and the site was designed for 4 reactors but only 1 has been built. Seems capacity could be available, and we could cut back on coal use, and all the diesel required to transport it everyday by train.

    I guess I should get out my erector set and get started on thatcold fusion reactor so I can be independent…

  5. December 14, 2008 1:34 am

    mark, i agree.   carbon offsets seem like “feel good” contributions that likely do nothing more than pad the pockets of those at the receiving end.   i’m still not convinced that offsets do any good either locally or globally.

    besides, plants need CO2.   if we got rid of all of it, flora simply wouldn’t survive.

    if we truly are producing excess CO2 then perhaps someone should invent a way to harness the gas and extrapolate the carbon and oxygen molecules to help produce more carbon fiber.   the resulting supply of carbon fiber could be used to create lighter, stronger, and therefore more fuel-efficient vehicles.

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