Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Debunking CO2 Myths and The Science of Climate Change

There are a number of myths about CO2 that continue to circulate despite scientific evidence to the contrary. These myths are often perpetuated by the uninformed or those with an agenda to protect non-sustainable corporate interests. With the aim of exposing some of the major fallacies here is quick summary of the science debunking eight CO2 myths.

Myth # 1 : CO2 Levels are Not Rising

Objective measurement of atmospheric increases in carbon dioxide was confirmed beginning in the 1930s, and these observations were corroborated in the late 1950s with the development of highly accurate measurement techniques.

In 1959 Charles Keeling began collecting flasks of air from an observatory at the summit of Mauna Loa in Hawaii in 1959. His research, known as the Keeling Curve, confirmed suspicions that carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels and other industrial activities are accumulating in the atmosphere.

Keeling's data set was confirmed by the Vostok ice core. The ice core findings reveal annual layers of air bubbles trapped in the ice, they can be dated and CO2 levels can be measured representing the atmosphere when the ice formed. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations calculated from trapped air bubbles indicate that "present carbon dioxide concentrations far exceed all values for the past 400,000 years."

Another source of scientific evidence comes from Houghton and Hackler. Their research indicates that land-use changes from 1850-2000 and the combustion of fossil fuels have caused the atmospheric CO2 concentrations to rise from 288 ppmv in 1850 to 369.5 ppmv in 2000. The Mauna Lao Observatory reports that as of May 2009, CO2 levels are at 390 ppmv.

Myth # 2 : CO2 is Not Related to Global Warming

The Vostok ice core reveals ratios of oxygen isotopes and deuterium they in turn indicate air temperature at the station at the time ice was formed. The study shows that carbon dioxide and temperature are linked through feedback loops; when the concentration of CO2 is high so is the temperature.

Myth # 3: CO2 is Not the Most Important GHG

Although water vapor is the most significant GHG, CO2 levels are steadily increasing while others like Methane have stabalized. Human activity is producing levels of CO2 that are upsetting the natural greenhouse balance and imperiling our planet. This is largely because CO2 remains in the atmosphere for more than a century while water vapor lasts only a few days. CO2 is the greatest concern because it is responsible for two-thirds of the additional warming caused by all the anthropogenic GHG.

Myth # 4: Anthropogenic CO2 is Harmlessly Absorbed

The Keeling Curve indicates that carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels and other industrial activities are accumulating in the atmosphere rather than being fully absorbed by the oceans and vegetated areas on land.

Houghton and Hackler's research has revealed that approximately 40% of the additional carbon has remained in the atmosphere, while the remaining 60% has been transferred to the oceans and terrestrial biosphere. This research reveals that 64% can be attributed to fossil-fuel combustion, representing about 14% of the carbon in the atmosphere in the form of CO2.

According to research from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, "around 30 per cent of the CO2 put into the atmosphere by human activities is absorbed by the oceans where it dissolves, altering the chemistry of the surface sea levels making it more acidic." Increasing levels of ocean acidity could destroy fisheries and damage coral reefs that provide habitat and coastal protection from storms. In a statement from the science academies of 70 countries rising levels of CO2 may cause an "underwater catastrophy.

Myth # 5: CO2 is Too Heavy to Reach the Troposphere

According to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC), the chemical formula of CO2 is Carbon (12) + Oxygen (16) + Oxygen (16), giving it a molecular weight of 44. Although this gas is heavier than air (50% heavier or 1 and 1/2 time as heavy). CO2 will mix with the air as all gasses do because of Brownian Motion (molecules bumping into each other). And like all gases, when wind is blowing, CO2 is carried up into the atmosphere, where more winds are able to carry it up to the troposphere.

"Free radicals, which are atomic or molecular species with unpaired electrons, and are highly reactive and this makes them able to form a chemical bond. The free radicals attach and form a new bond with CO2 creating a new gas depending on the species of the free radical. These gases work their way a bit further into the upper atmosphere and this is where they become GHGs."

Myth # 6: Respiration is to Blame for CO2

All living things including plants and animals exhale CO2. According to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC), "the average person exhales approximately 1 kg of CO2 per day. However the exhaled CO2 includes carbon that was originally taken out of the carbon dioxide in the air by plants through photosynthesis - whether you eat the plants directly or animals that eat the plants. Thus, there is a closed loop, with no net addition to the atmosphere. Of course, the agriculture, food processing, and marketing industries use energy (in many cases based on the combustion of fossil fuels), but their emissions of carbon dioxide are captured in our estimates as emissions from solid, liquid, or gaseous fuels."

Myth # 7: Technologies Using CO2 are to Blame

According to the CDIAC, technologies that use CO2 are not responsible for increased GHG emissions. Technologies like dry ice blasting, supercritical cleaning and painting etc., do not increase GHG emissions because "most of the CO2 used in these kinds of applications is recovered from processes like fermentation and it is either CO2 that it is being extracted from the atmosphere by plants or CO2 that would have been released from fossil fuel burning anyhow. In essence it passes through this kind of use rather than being emitted immediately and there is no extra CO2 produced".

Myth # 8: Managing CO2 is Too Expensive

There are viable ways we can facilitate the shift towards a low carbon economy. As we will review in the next post, cap-and-trade legislation is a viable way of creating incentives for lowing carbon and generating revenues that can help to finance the transition. Immediate action is required as we simply cannot afford to continue to ignore the cost of anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

Next: Action on Climate Change

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1 comment:

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