The carbon dioxide trap


It is a statement that I heard many times before: “What’s wrong with cleaning up CO2 emissions? Even if science of CO2 is not correct, we will end up with a cleaner environment”. I have to admit that is also what I thought until some years before, but I came back from it.

Let me first say I am not against cleaning up pollution, on the contrary. But I think CO2 is not necessary a “pollutant” in the way we think of harmful substances. CO2 is an essential part of life. Plants need it for photosynthesis and if they would have a vote, they would go for more emissions. On the other hand we, as humans, don’t have to fear toxic effects of it. It becomes only toxic for us in very high concentrations. If we would burn all fossil fuel we would not even come close.

The reason why a rising CO2 concentration is feared is because it is a greenhouse gas. But as a greenhouse gas it is not particularly powerful, also not the most abundant. More, its effects are logarithmic, so the effects are decreasing with higher concentrations. Even the IPCC, after overstating it for many years, had to downgrade the warming effects of CO2 (they didn’t tell it with that many words).

But these are not the reasons why I came back from the statement cleaning up CO2 from the atmosphere. Yes, I think its effects on the climate are much overstated as more scientists seem to come to this conclusion, but there are deeper issues. If we declare a problem and it is in fact not (much of) the problem, then people will get creative to try solving it even if it doesn’t need solving. It can prevent us from looking at the real problems and find a real solution.

An example that I have recently read on the Climate Etc blog (on the paper of John Pethick and Julian Orford): the World Bank stated in a press release that human caused global warming will cause significant sea level rise and Bangladesh will be affected. But according to Judith Curry this line of thinking may spell danger to the population of Bangladesh because its sea level rise problem is not really driven by climate change, but by land subsidence.

Policies targeted at trying to help this situation through emissions reductions seem futile. But of even greater concern are WorldBank and other adaptation strategies for Bangladesh will not be adequate if they are targeted only at the global warming piece of the problem. This is a very large geo-political issue with regards to the substantial international (UN, WorldBank) funds targeted at climate change adaptation. Bangladesh’s sea level rise problem is not really driven by climate change – the risks here are that UN/WB adaptation solutions will be inadequate to help them deal with their sea level rise problem, or that Bangladesh will find itself ineligible for international climate adaptation funds.

Might Bangladesh become a tragic victim of the UNFCCC/IPCC oversimplification of the climate change problem and its solutions?

Another example is the Kiribati/Tuvalu story from last post. If their problem is attributed to rising sea level caused by increasing CO2 levels, then there is no need to find a solution for actual problems like increasing pressure on the fresh water lenses because of overpopulation and increasing tourism, destruction of the protective reef for building material, more paving,… This attitude makes them basically powerless. Therefor hoping for the funds of those countries that feel guilty and are eager to compensate.

That’s the real danger: that we will not necessarily have a cleaner environment after dealing with a non-problem, how altruistic the intention might be, and that the problem still exists. Leaving us with less resources to face it. CO2 being very expensive to tackle, that might not leave much.

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