The 12 days of climate change myths: #2, It’s all about CO2
The debate about climate change often creates more heat than light and has become centred on the role or non-role of one gas in our changing climate. This is probably a fatal mistake for all of us, asserts Simon Leadbetter.
Growing up we probably all remember the parable of the good carbon dioxide. Trees, plants and algae ‘breathe in’ (photosynthesise) carbon dioxide and ‘breathe out’ oxygen as waste that we need to breathe ourselves. They’ve been doing it for us quite happily millennia.
Obviously, it is a lot more complicated than that but the basic process is well understood, uncontroversial and widely accepted, based on what the balance of scientific opinion has told us. There are no photosynthesis deniers to our knowledge because scientists who have studied this tell us, that’s how it works.
We also use CO2 to chill wine, fizz our drinks and to put out electrical fires. At some point, however, CO2 stopped being our friend and became the enemy that must be vanquished at every turn.
This humble chemically compounded gas (one part carbon, two parts oxygen) represents just 0.035% of the earth’s atmosphere. Nitrogen and oxygen represent 99%. But the overwhelming balance of scientific opinion tells us that small increases in this gas affect the earth’s climate and temperature and, as a result, human life. Overtime CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have moved with temperature increases.
At that point a lot of people get very angry for some reason.
Otherwise rational people who accept the scientific proof of photosynthesis but cannot accept CO2 as a key component in climate change do some or one of the following. They either deny global warming is happening; that the climate models are unreliable; that surface temperature records are just wrong; point wildly at the sun as a cause of global warming; or argue that this is a plot by left-wing wind-farm profiteers attempting to drag our economy back into socialist dark ages and literally cover the UK in wind turbines while they’re at it.
Fine. Let us accept for one moment that CO2 has absolutely nothing at all to do with climate change and we should carry on, business as usual, just as we have done for the past twenty years or so. How is that working out for our planet and us?
Let’s carry on as though we are not running out of oil, gas or coal. Well for one thing, we are quite rapidly running out of the oil, gas and coal. The US Government, the Oil & Gas Journal and OPEC (all anti-fossil fuel protesters I think you’ll agree) estimate we have between 13-23 years remaining of supplies of oil. Natural gas is in better shape at 37 years (Oil & Gas Journal, BP and the CIA) and Coal at 70 years (World Coal Institute). All this stuff is non-renewable, i.e. you burn it once and it’s gone. That means in our lifetimes and those of our children and grandchildren we will run out of the very fuel that literally drives our economy.
Imagine what happens to a country with waning economic influence and few fossil fuel reserves as the stuff starts to run out. No doubt the brilliant minds at BP, Shell, and Cuadrilla etc. will find new and exciting ways to extract harder to find reserves but wouldn’t it be better if we found alternatives. There are clean alternatives that are freely available within our own territorial boundaries, which means young British men and women don’t have to fight wars overseas to protect our oil supplies. We have no shortage of wind and waves on our windy, wavy island. By harnessing just 29% of the tidal, wave and wind power around our shores, we have the capacity to power our economy and become a net exporter of electricity.
Moreover, it’s not just burning imported stuff that’s the problem. Burning fossil fuels puts particles into the air we breathe, leading to increased asthma, lung disease and cardio-vascular health problems. Children come off worst as their undeveloped lungs are most susceptible to this kind of pollution potentially meaning years of misery and tragically shortened lives. The European Environment Agency estimates that air pollution costs the UK up to £9.5billion a year, although our own House of Commons puts the cost as much higher. What price would you put on a child’s life with or without asthma or emphysema?
Nevertheless, let’s keep assuming and lobbying for one moment that CO2 has nothing to do with climate change. It still leaves the question as to what are we going to do when we run out of stuff to burn and none of our kids can breathe. It’s not alarmist, China and India and most of the rest of Asia have just started on their journey towards industrial nirvana when households have more than one car each and universal penetration in electricity hungry appliances. When fossil fuels run out, they run out for everyone regardless of which flag you fly, and in the meantime, the richest counties will pay a very hefty premium unless they can find an alternative. Pollution doesn’t care about borders so if we dash for gas, find a role for coal or toy with nuclear, when those stations start pumping out particles and the odd nuclear station goes wrong, we’re all affected.
The forward thinking Chinese are installing renewable energy like there’s no tomorrow because they fear there won’t be one if fossil fuel consumption patterns remain the way they are. Why aren’t we as worried or getting our own house in order?
Britain could lead the world in renewable energy technology and energy efficiency. Good Energy is one example of a company that provides 100% renewable energy but there are many other examples of clean technology that works. It’s a pity so much energy is expended and money is wasted arguing about one gas, when winning the easier to win argument on pollution and waste would solve that problem by default.
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