Why Reducing CO2 In The Atmosphere Seems to Me a Lost Game For the Foreseeable Future (4/4)

So what can we derive from this realisation? What can we do when we accept the fact that a world with high concentration of CO2 for long periods of time is the most likely future we are heading towards?

We can first acknowledge that political wrangling at the global level may not be the most optimal way of obtaining the results we need, i.e. reaching this general plateau as soon as possible and then bring down again the level of CO2 in this bathtub which is the Earth’s atmosphere, all while disrupting to the minimum economic development. Nor are we likely to obtain them by a cumbersome taxing mechanism, which can easily turn into a system of global lying and deceiving.

We can secondly come to terms with the fact that we will live in an atmosphere with a higher level of CO2 in it, for long periods of time, despite our best efforts, and we can focus a great deal of scientific work on what does that exactly mean, beyond just climate change, to the fauna and flora, to the level of acidity of the oceans, and to biodiversity in general. In other words, we need to develop solid mitigation plans to defend quality of life and ensure that we do not have a mass extinction of species on our hand down the line.

Third, we can work aggressively on ways to make accessible means of energy production as clean and as efficient as possible. As an example, instead of bedevilling energy production from coal, and instead of spending large amounts of time and effort figuring out how to tax it, we can rather concentrate our effort and money on making ‘clean coal’ energy production economically attractive. Coal is an abundant source of energy on our planet, and the nations that need energy the most to fight poverty and increase economic prosperity (such as China and India) have it easily accessible in their own territory. We then ask, what is more realistic and productive, bullying these nations into not using coal when they are really struggling with energy issues or figuring out new ways (which are scientifically possible) of using this coal with a lower environmental footprint?

And fourth, we can continue to expand energy-efficient equipment and processes around the world, from energy-efficient cars, to more efficient ways of transmitting, distributing, and storing electricity, to energy-efficient household equipment, to smarter ways of providing public lighting.

The third and fourth measures in the above fall in the category of helping reduce the increase in CO2 emissions down the line – they are unlikely to be enough to reduce CO2 emissions in absolute terms given the requirements for economic development of the world’s population and the percentage of that population who is still under the middle-class line. Hence, the most hopeful and effective way of really addressing the problem of net addition of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere over the long-term lies in devising better technological ways of absorbing back some of this CO2 released in the atmosphere. Reabsorption of CO2 by oceans carries with it negative effects if done in excessive manners, including a general increase of the acidity of seawater and its impact on fragile coral reefs and some of the marine life. But reabsorption of CO2 by rock and land, if carefully done, can be more long lasting – this is what is called in technical terms ‘artificial carbon sequestration’. The key unit in such a sequestration process is what is commonly called a ‘CO2 pump’ which has essentially as role to absorb some of the CO2 present in the atmosphere and convert it and store it back in land. It is worth noting that the term ‘CO2 pump’ is more of an umbrella term, and there exists different chemical and mechanical ways of absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and transforming it.

From the behaviour of human beings who largely oppose giving up a certain acquired convenient lifestyle or making sacrifices unless under clear and pressing threat, and from the general nature of world affairs, it seems to us easier politically to agree on a way of sequestrating back some of the emitted CO2 rather than policing every nation into limiting its emissions. But it is not something easily achievable politically nonetheless. There is a cost associated with setting up and operating such large scale sequestration infrastructures, and it is likely that the different nations around the world will give themselves to the game of trying to pass on the cost of such an infrastructure, if it existed and were economically viable, from one to the other. And so we see that our only salvation from the problem of perpetual increase of CO2 in the atmosphere seems to be technological, but mostly on the CO2 absorption side rather than the CO2 emission side, but not without some minimal form of international political agreement. This may likely be easier in the case of CO2 absorption as it does not require as much of a sacrifice of lifestyle or economic development for the sake of reducing CO2.


Why Reducing CO2 In The Atmosphere Seems to Me a Lost Game For the Foreseeable Future (3/4)

The highly lauded goal of reducing the rate of increase in CO2 concentration over the coming decades is indeed ironic on many levels. First, it does not solve any environmental problem really – the bathtub continues to fill up, only slightly more slowly. In other words, it is asking to push the can few years down the road without offering any radical solution. Second, it is not entirely clear how different the environmental impact would be for a difference of say 100-150 ppm between the concentration of CO2 in the good case scenario (where everybody magically agrees, and quickly, to try to limit CO2 emission at the expense of other priorities, such as economic growth and poverty reduction) and in the bad case scenario (where all nations continue to operate as usual).

So in other words, the current approach consists of engaging into very difficult and contentious political debates, for simply slowing down a reality that is made inevitable, for ‘gains’ in terms of alleviating the environmental impact that are largely unclear. And we are hoping to achieve some positive results in the global political sphere knowing that:

(1) There exists a huge political opposition against forcing a control on CO2 emissions by the two largest emitters of CO2 in the world today (China and the United States);

(2) The rise of the world population into the middle class, and what is required in terms of energy consumption to get there, is still at its infancy. For example, according to the latest data on global wealth, ~92% of the world’s adult population, i.e. 3.3 billion people not including children, are still under the $100,000 threshold of wealth; and

(3) Humans have a generally complacent nature. Let us face it, we human beings rarely come together and sacrifice on a large scale unless we are under a clear, visible, and immediate existential threat, not of the diffused or delayed kind the increase of CO2 concentration results in.

We leave the reader to reflect on all of this for a moment.

No one is aiming from all the political debate about CO2 emissions to offer an effective way of reducing the levels of CO2 in the bathtub (which essentially requires this delta not only to be reduced but also to turn negative) in the foreseeable future, and actually very few are hoping that this delta will in reality decrease. This is how far is the reality of the numbers from what is debated politically and in the media, and it is for these reasons that aiming at reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere in the centuries to come seems to us like a lost battle (except for an unexpected technological breakthrough of a particular kind coupled with the right international political will for it, a scenario we shall talk about at the end). Again, these are the views not of someone who has a political or economic agenda that benefits from perpetuating the current way of emitting CO2, but of someone who is environmentally concerned but a realist nonetheless, with some exposure to the business and political decision-making process.

It is important to realise the reality of these numbers when it comes to the debate over CO2 control. There is a general wrong perception that with some global concerted effort, we can easily bring down the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere over the coming decades. This is wrong, misleading, and highly unproductive; it conveys false expectations to the general public. We are heading towards a world with higher concentration of CO2 and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – the uncertainty is rather around what levels of concentration we will ultimately reach before a general plateau or a steady level of CO2 concentration takes place. We need to care about the levels of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, not only in the context of global warming, but no matter what our idealistic desires on the subject are, we need to look at facts as they are and contrast them with the reality of our human affairs; we should not be carried away by misplaced romanticism and wishful scenarios.

Unfortunately, politics around CO2 emissions and control are largely divided between two camps: those with no concern whatsoever over CO2 levels and those possessed by a idealistic, wishful scenario that does not take properly into account the true nature of human political and economic dynamics.

[To be continued].


Why Reducing CO2 In The Atmosphere Seems to Me a Lost Game For the Foreseeable Future (2/4)

Let us consider the details and explain why we are seeing a world with a high concentration of CO2, with all of its consequences, as inevitable, and why the current political and technological approach to the problem is largely inadequate.

The most effective way of looking at things is to consider the Earth’s atmosphere as a bathtub: it has a certain amount of CO2 in it; it gets filled constantly with more CO2 from human-related activity (mainly combustion of any material containing carbon, whether it is wood, fuel, coal, or other) and the occasional geologically-caused emissions (such as volcanic eruptions); and it gets relieved constantly through CO2 absorption in mainly three ways: by vegetation, by oceans, and by land. If the bathtub is filled faster than it gets relieved, it fills up, and the general level of CO2 in the atmosphere goes up; if the quantity of CO2 absorbed from the atmosphere is higher than the one emitted, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere goes down. This is pretty simple indeed.

It is important to note here that the three ‘natural’ methods of absorbing CO2 mentioned above are rather slow, and the one that is the most effective at absorbing CO2 over the long-term is actually the slowest (that is carbon natural sequestration by land). The problem with trees and vegetation absorbing CO2 is that they can be cut and used again, which does not really constitute an effective way of absorbing CO2 over the long-term, unless large stocks of flora are left untouched on Earth and are not subject to destruction by forest fires and by humans, whether intentionally or not.

Currently, the average annual level of CO2 concentration in Earth’s atmosphere is close to 400 ppm which is very high by the standard of the timespan of homo sapiens on Earth (last ~200,000 years), of the most recent Ice Age we are still technically in, and likely of the most recent millions of years, but not high at all in the context of the billions of years of Earth’s existence where we can find periods of exceptionally high presence of CO2 in the atmosphere largely above the 400 ppm level (some models even talk about 7,000 ppm for some periods millions of years ago…). This concentration level fluctuates over a certain year, sometimes below 400, sometimes above, but the average has been increasing steadily over the past several decades and is set to break through the 400-ppm barrier soon (if it has not already done so). The main contributor to this increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere over the past couple of centuries is indeed human activity; humans, by their daily activities, are causing greater emissions of CO2 in the atmosphere which are not absorbed as quickly by the natural prevailing methods of CO2 absorption.

The difference today between emission and absorption exceeds 2 ppm per year; this means that, every year, the average level of CO2 in the bathtub that is the Earth’s atmosphere is increasing by more than 2 ppm. And this difference, this ‘delta’, is actually widening every year: we are pouring more CO2 in the bathtub, faster with time. We do not actually dispose of accurate data concerning the details, i.e. how much is actually emitted, and how much is actually absorbed every year by young forests, oceans, and land, as it is indeed quite complicated to measure these details accurately. What we know with more certainty is the resulting net increase of CO2 in the atmosphere year-over-year, in addition to general ideas of the pace of CO2 absorption by vegetation, oceans, and land.

And now here is the most ironic part about the entire political debate concerning the reduction of CO2 emissions: most efforts today aim at decelerating the increase in this delta between CO2 emission and CO2 absorption (which today slightly exceeds 2 ppm per year as we said) over the coming years. And this is the best this political discussion can hope to achieve if it succeeds. In other words, all what this tedious political wrangling we hear about in the news, with its low chance of success, in generally difficult economic times, can hope to achieve is a smaller increase in CO2 concentration by 2100 than if we do nothing. So instead of taking us from ~400 ppm today to (for example) 700 ppm by 2100, what this political wrangling can only hope to realise is a target of (again for example) say 600 ppm by 2100.

[To be continued].