Friday, July 4, 2014

Here's to burned burgers and other carbon based products

It’s July  4, 2014, Independence Day in the United States.  It’s appropriate to write something thoughtful about the history of the country, the meaning of the revolution, and all that---but it was a rebellion, and in that spirit I think I'll reject the cultural pressure to write about the whole 4th of July thing, and write about something else entirely.  I won’t even offer up an old family recipe for brioche hamburger buns or watermelon-wine sorbet or anything.   The Washington Post op-ed page is full of that stuff, so I’ll just link to Samuelson, which, astonishingly, I found worthwhile today, and to Gerson too, who is almost always worthwhile even when I completely disagree with him.

So yesterday I was grazing through the econoblogs and followed a link to this discussion of the carbon cycle by Dr. Peter Dorman, which I thought was interesting and unusual in a site called “EconoSpeak”.   The theory here is that emissions from gas-powered cars and coal burning power plants should not be considered “pollution” in a strict sense.  Really, he says that.   Here’s a quote:

“People whose actions move carbon into the atmosphere are not necessarily ‘polluters’.  We’ll see this later when we look at electric cars.  The fact that carbon goes out my tailpipe but not yours doesn’t mean that I am a carbon polluter when I drive and you’re not.  As you can imagine, this misunderstanding plays havoc with the industry that calls itself carbon accounting.”

His idea is pretty straightforward, actually, and captured in the line "carbon will find a path".  What this means is that once carbon is extracted from a safe sequestration far under the earth, it will spread itself out into the world, including into the atmosphere, no matter how it is used.  The carbon cycle will extract it from whatever use you put it to, use it, spill it, twist it, turn it upside down and inside out, and in the end some fraction of it will be contained in plants, some in animals, some in the (shallow, accessible) ground, some in the surface ocean, and some in the air.  Cars and factories are not the culprit: they are the most common direct path of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but not the ultimate source.  There is only one act in the carbon cycle that can be described as causing carbon pollution: extracting carbon from deep in the earth and adding it to the carbon cycle up here in the surface world.  The extraction of oil, coal, natural gas, or any other carbon-rich substance from deep isolation liberates it, and one way or another some of it will eventually enter the atmosphere, period.  Like melting water on a hilltop moves in rivulets and then streams, or soaks through the earth, or in sliding ice-packs that we call glaciers, by one path or another it moves downhill, carbon will move by one path or another to all the repositories it uses, including the bodies of living things, surface earth, surface water and the atmosphere.  Once freed from captivity in the deep earth, it will inevitably get to its various destinations in balanced proportions.  That’s the idea.

But if not through factory  or car emissions, how does it get from the surface in solid or liquid form into the air as a gas?  Well...the two most widely discussed atmospheric gasses that contain carbon are carbon dioxide and methane.   Biological sources account for significant amounts of the methane in the atmosphere. For example, one of the famous sources of methane pollution in the atmosphere is flatulence, the emission of excess carbon and hydrogen from the earth's 1.4 billion cows, or from its 7 billion people, or 19 billion chickens, or untold trillions of termites and methane producing microbes in the oceans, swamps and land fills.   So if it's true that "carbon will find a path", and if we eliminate factories and cars by, for example, taxing them out of existence, we haven’t solved the long run problem.  Carbon will just find its way into the atmosphere in other ways, possibly through increased (or prolonged) excretion of methane from animals.  It may take longer, but if he's right, then eliminating carbon dioxide pollution from factories, power plants and cars only means that we'll fart our way to global warming.  It might take longer but we’ll get there in the end.

Dr. Dorman didn't say this, but a fanciful vision I had when I read his blog post is that the release of new carbon from deep in the earth enables population explosions by providing the raw materials required to build new living bodies: all those new living things are built from carbon and that carbon has to be available.  More carbon, more plants, livestock, people and microbes---and more carbon in the air from biological emission sources.  Once we dig it up, it finds a way into the atmosphere, even if that involves using itself to build a lot more of us, and using us and our farms and waste dumps as a pathway into the air.

But that means that a carbon emissions tax on factories is the wrong approach: that just taxes the symptom.  What we need is a tax on the real source of carbon pollution: the extraction of carbon from deep isolation in the earth.  This would make gas and coal more expensive, and alternative energy sources more attractive, and would discourage carbon extraction into the surface world carbon cycle.

I'm not sure I completely buy the inevitability of it (there may be ways to re-sequester the carbon, to extract it from the air and capture it in a more or less isolated form), and reorganizing the emission sources away from factories, power plants and cars will at least slow the process, so I'm not really willing to abandon my support for carbon emissions taxes and subsidies for alternative industries that don’t push carbon directly into the atmosphere.  But the story has a strong logic, doesn't it?   Moving away from carbon fuels will slow things down, and so it’s a good idea for the “short run”---say, 50 years, or 100 years, or 1000 years---but to solve the truly long run atmospheric carbon problem we have to capture as much carbon back into a sequestered form as we liberate.  That “carbon cycle” also has to balance, or we have no long run chance to avert global warming.  So tax the source, and let the price mechanism induce a flood of ways to do without it.  And subsidize technologies that sequester carbon (artificial diamonds?) to extract the carbon from the system.  

The point of this notion is that it doesn't matter how we use the carbon once it's loose in the surface world.  What matters is that we need it, and where we get it, and how we can remove it from the whole system, not just from the air.


Happy 4th.

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