Carbon versus Carbon dioxide

It always feels strange to hear so many people talk about “carbon” pollution when they actually talk about CO2 emissions. Not only by politicians and activists, but also by universities and people who should know better. Beside the fact that CO2 is a gas benevolent to life, not exactly usable to describe a pollutant, there is something else wrong with this: it doesn’t describe well what is talked about.

  • Carbon is solid stuff. Remember: a solid
  • Carbon dioxide is a (trace) gas in our atmosphere. Remember: a gas.

Big difference.

Calling carbon dioxide (CO2) “Carbon” is like calling water (H2O) “Hydrogen”. It doesn’t make any sense either. Suppose we would do the same for water, we get something like this:

“I wash myself with [water] hydrogen and soap”.
That doesn’t make much sense at all…
“I drink a glass of [water] hydrogen every morning”
Doesn’t make much sense either…
“[Water] Hydrogen is an inflammable substance”.

I think you get the drift.

But why would you want to call something by a name that obviously doesn’t fit the description? Why not calling it with its proper name? My guess is that it has to do with perception. It is difficult for the public to grasp an increase of a trace gas in the atmosphere. That wouldn’t be alarming at all.

But its component Carbon is also known as a black stuff and this comes closer to a “pollution” than the abstract trace gas that nobody can see, touch, taste, nor smell. “Carbon pollution” creates an image of air filled loaded with filthy stuff, something you can’t create by talking about a trace gas. The same for carbon footprint, carbon tax, decarbonize,…

It is an honest representation? No, not exactly. But it seem to work.

2 thoughts on “Carbon versus Carbon dioxide

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