Accounting for Carbon

Chris Waller - 21st August 2021
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The International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) has declared a ‘code red’, stating that climate change is now not in doubt and is caused by human activity.

The IPCC has said that since 1850 a total of 2.4 trillion (2.4 x 10*12) tonnes of carbon dioxide have been put into the atmosphere. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 1700 (taken as the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) was 280 parts per million; it now stands at 420 ppm. What is of more concern is the rate at which levels of CO2 are increasing. In 1950 total global CO2 output was 6 btpa (billion tonnes per annum), rising to 23 btpa in 1990 and now standing at 37 btpa. The increasing industrialisation of China and India, plus others it must be said, is clearly evident in the figures.

Current levels of CO2 emissions, at 37 btpa, should be increasing atmospheric concentrations by 7.4 ppm per annum, but in actuality it is only 2.6 ppm (taking the total mass of the Earth’s atmosphere as 5 x 10*15 tonnes). The apparent discrepancy is partly explained by the amount of CO2 which has dissolved in the oceans. Of all CO2 emitted it is calculated that about 30% dissolves in the oceans. This is evident in the degree to which the acidity of the oceans has increased, with consequent damaging effect on coral and other marine life. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has stated that the acidity of the oceans has increased by 30 percent.

The tonnage of CO2 dissolving in the oceans equates to about 2.2 ppm so we are still left with a discrepancy of 5.6 ppm which would suggest that somewhere around 3 ppm is being absorbed by other means, perhaps mainly by forests and other long-term plant growth. What is alarming s that atmospheric CO2 levels are now increasing at over 4 times the levels seen in the 1960s.

The global average temperature is now thought to have risen by 1.25o C above pre-industrial levels. As a consequence of global warming the loss of arctic and glacial ice between 1994 and 2017 totalled 28 trillion tonnes (28 x 10*12) and is causing sea-level to rise by 3.6 mm per annum.

Given the scale of the crisis nothing but immediate and drastic measures can halt, let alone reverse, the process. Electric cars, currently being vigorously advertised as the solution to the crisis, will have negligible impact. These cars will still be built of steel and that, forth time being, can only be produced by the combustion of fossil fuels. Beyond making a small improvement in the air quality in our cities, there is little to be gained that could not be achieved by the use of trams and trolley-‘buses.

To have any significant impact of atmospheric CO2 levels we need to find a substitute for steel and also for cement. Cement is the source of about 8% of the world's CO2 emissions, according to think tank Chatham House. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world - behind China and the US. It contributes more CO2 than aviation fuel (2.5%) and is not far behind the global agriculture business (12%).

There are a number of technologies being studied to remove CO2 from the atmosphere but for the time being these remain unproven. A more certain approach would be to increase forestation, but studies have indicated that an area somewhere between 3 and 15 times the area of Texas would need to be reforested to have any serious impact. (Note: 15 times the area of Texas in equal to the area of the entire USA.)

Other research suggest that grasslands are more effective at reducing atmospheric CO2 levels which leads us to another possibility – bamboo (itself a type of grass). Under the right conditions bamboo achieves staggering rates of growth and current research indicated that one hectare of bamboo can absorb between 3 and 12 tonnes of CO2 per annum. Here’s a thought: instead of exporting our ‘recycled’ plastic to south-east Asia (typically around 7,000 tonnes per month) why do we not burn it and use the energy to generate electricity, and then import bamboo from south-east Asia. In this way we export our CO2 as gas and re- import it as bamboo and bamboo products. We might augment this by growing more willow, another rapid grower, in the UK and resurrect the wicker-work trade. Hazel, too, commends itself as a carbon-sink.

Given recent and current events – wildfires, catastrophic flooding, landslides etc. – I doubt we have the 30 years grace expected in which to reach a carbon-neutral global economy. The costs of global warming are enormous; the floods in Henan, China, are estimated to have caused well over £10 billion-worth of damage while destroying 1 million hectares of agricultural land.

On August 14, 1912, a New Zealand newspaper called the Rodney and Otamatea Times, Waitemata and Kaipara Gazette printed a prescient paragraph in its "science notes and news" section:- "The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries."

We cannot say that we have not been warned.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Business Insider
The Guardian
BBC News.

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