3 min read

Let's Demonize CO2 (by Christian Walter)

There is simply no alternative to decarbonizing the economy. It may be hard, but we should not stop trying to accomplish it.
Blue colored solar panels stretching off into the distance
Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

For the times they are a-changin'.

In his Newsletter The Healing Ozone Layer is a Warning, not a Blessing, James points out that reducing CO2 is much harder than eliminating ozone-depleting substances. He concludes that humanity’s successful collaboration to save the ozone layer cannot serve as the blueprint for decarbonizing the world economy.

In fact, he issues a stern warning to climate activists to

"stop demonizing CO2 and unleash the world’s creativity in coming up with alternatives to the bigger problem of global warming."

He draws on his experience with his company and points out the difficulty and effort required to become carbon neutral. He states that "many hundred projects in countless areas of operation" were necessary and that they had to use carbon offset schemes to "compensate for the direct emissions we could not eliminate."

I do not agree.

We Don't Have a Choice

There is simply no alternative to decarbonizing the economy. It may be hard, but just because something is hard, we should not stop trying to accomplish it. Otherwise, nobody would ever run a marathon or climb Mount Everest.

Let’s look at some facts

CO2 is both a very common and very important molecule on planet earth. Without it, plants can’t grow as it is converted into plant matter by photosynthesis and all animals emit CO2 as part of their metabolism.

CO2 has always been and CO2 will always be. Why is it a problem then?

Millions of years ago, in Jurassic times, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, carbon dioxide concentrations were five times higher than today and the average temperature on planet earth was 5°C higher.

CO2 absorbs infrared light (warm light) and thus higher CO2 concentrations lead to the so-called greenhouse effect: letting sunlight in, but preventing warm light from escaping, thereby making our world warmer.

Over millions of years, CO2 was eliminated from the atmosphere by plants growing and dying forming seabed sediments, leading to huge deposits of so-called fossilized fuels, namely oil, coal, and natural gas. The reduced concentration of CO2 led to a gradual reduction in temperature and to a much more stable climate in the Holocene period (the last 11,000 years) allowing humankind to develop agriculture and stable societies.

Since the industrial revolution in the 18th century, fossil fuels have provided cheap energy and helped us to develop our society in an unprecedented way. The cheap energy fueled economic growth, technological development, and relative wealth for billions of people.

However, by burning fossil fuels to power steam trains, ships, automobiles, and airplanes, and to heat houses, power factories, and wage wars, we released CO2 back into the cycle of life. This generational trade-off allowed current generations to flourish at the expense of our children and grandchildren.

Decarbonizing our economy is not only imperative but also possible. Is it hard? Definitely. Is it free of charge? Hell no! Does it require humanity to collaborate at hitherto unseen levels? Probably.

How can we accomplish decarbonization?

By harnessing solar power. A total of 173,000 trillion watts of power continuously reaches our planet, which is more than 10,000 times humanity’s consumption.

This energy is not only available for photovoltaic conversion into electricity, but powers weather systems (which can be harnessed by wind or wave turbines and hydroelectricity) and heats up oceans and land allowing us to obtain energy from heat exchangers.

There is plenty of energy available for all of us. We just need to find the best ways of access, storage, and conversion into suitable forms, while limiting environmental impact and making it available for winter heating and transport.

The transformation won't come easily

This transformation will be no easy feat. It will require the best and the brightest to develop practical solutions.

It will require conservatives and liberals to work together and agree on compromises, accepting that the journey will be likely messy, costly, and imperfect. There will be losers and winners, like in any great transformation in the history of the world.

Personally, I believe it cannot be accomplished if we make it too painful. Our species struggles to give up too much. The approach of Fridays for Future to turn decarbonization into a movement against capitalism, travel, meat consumption, and so on, is counterproductive and creates opposition.

My generation has a lot to answer for. We benefitted from cheap oil and gas and ignored scientific evidence of climate change for far too long. We let our narrative be dominated by oil and gas lobbyists and by the ever-so-seductive sound of the motor car.

The least we can do is to help with one of the greatest transformations humanity has ever had to accomplish.

Or to say it with the words of Bob Dylan in his iconic song:

“…Your sons and your daughters
are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’