Carbon Cycle Extension 2/25/19


By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.

Climate scientist reported that a critical goalpost has been surpassed recently. It’s called the “six-sigma” standard, which basically says that the percent certainty that human activity is the cause of global warming is 99.9999% certain (the chances that it is just a natural phenomenon is 1 in 1 million).

The carbon cycle that we learned in school goes something like this; carbon (primarily absorbed as carbon dioxide) is absorbed from the air in plants. The carbon from this source is converted to organic matter to support the life of the plant (proteins, DNA, sugars, lipids, etc.) These plants then burn, decay, or are consumed by animals. All three pathways result in the oxidation of this organic matter either directly by reacting with oxygen in the air or through metabolic processes. The end result of all three processes is the release of carbon dioxide back into the air to be absorbed by plants, so the entire cycle can begin again.

What is left out of this cycle, however, are the “carbon reserves” within the Earth. These are the trillions of tons of fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas) that have been effectively removed from the carbon cycle and “stored” in a form under the earth that cannot be accessed by the usual carbon cycle. This carbon is an easy and quick source of energy, and as such has been obtained by humans to run our electrical companies, automobiles, rockets, factories and more. (It’s also used in the production of plastics.)

As we burn these fuels, they become carbon dioxide, are re-inserted into the active carbon cycle, and participate in it. It means this carbon dioxide is trapped in the atmosphere with us and is no longer in Earth’s reserves.

The reality is that, at least when this started, we did not know what this addition of carbon to the active carbon cycle would do. It has been called the “greatest uncontrolled experiment in history.” Recently, a politician has said that this is a good thing because it means that there is more carbon dioxide for our crops to absorb and will therefore result in greater yields. Well, it is true that there is more carbon dioxide for the plants to absorb, but it also has been linked to acid rain (by the impurities), and now, with 99.9999% certainty, is causing the earth to warm, thereby contributing to more extreme and unstable weather, and shifting “growth zones” (zones where crops grow best which have been shifting north).

Some efforts to mitigate this have been attempted, but usually with incorrect logic. The government has been using the concept of “carbon credit”, wherein companies can reduce their taxes by shrinking their “carbon footprint”, typically by planting trees. Yes, it is true that trees will absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but they do not remove the carbon from the active carbon cycle. Because trees and plants are part of the carbon cycle, any carbon absorbed by them will eventually be put back into the carbon cycle.

The simple reality is that, for every ton of fossil fuel burned, it remains part of the carbon cycle, regardless of how many trees are planted. Some trees will hold the carbon longer depending on how long they live, but it’s always temporary.

The earth, by the way, will be fine. It will live on, and short of doing something SO stupid that we blast it to pieces, it will be fine. We will be dead, though. Life may not continue. But, if we want to continue to LIVE on this planet, it’s time to make some changes. It’s time to phase out (and uncomfortably quickly at this late time) fossil fuels, and convert to renewable energy sources like wind, solar, hydroelectric power, geothermal heating, and more.

I’ve spoken earlier that electric cars are not the answer, because the power to energize the is still the electric power company. Sadly, while so many people are trying to move in this direction, it seems that legislators are fighting it. For a while, we had incentives to develop highly efficient automobiles (which won’t solve the problem, but will slow down dependency on fossil fuels), and alternative forms of energy. The other piece of the puzzle is higher efficiency appliances so we use less energy.

No matter what our source of energy, over reliance will cause long term problems. Solar power will act like “greenhouse gas” if over utilized by trapping light and converting it to energy. Wind power will influence weather patterns if overly utilized. Our hope for survival falls in (1) diversity of energy sources, and (2) conservation of energy. Otherwise, well, it’s just a matter of time.

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