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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Carbon Dioxide – The Waste Product of Our Energy Economy

Summary.  Human activity generates waste.  As the earth’s population grows, and as the world-wide standard of living rises, we create more and more waste.  Examples include household trash, electronic devices, and acid rain.  Most significantly, as we burn more and more fossil fuels to produce the energy that powers modern life, we emit more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  This substance, an important greenhouse gas, is being released as the waste product of our energy economy. 

As with other forms of waste, significant costs are implicit in reversing any harmful effects that the waste may have on our environment.  It is imperative to treat manmade carbon dioxide as a cost-bearing waste product because of the harmful effects of the global warming that it produces.  These harms carry enormous costs with them.  Accounting for these costs makes it more acceptable to make the investments, and bring about the changes needed, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Introduction.  Humans have always generated waste as part of their life activities.  In prehistory and in historical times it has been a simple matter for mankind to discard its waste, typically in a refuse area, and not to be concerned about its effects, its cost or any need for recovery.  (Archeologists relish these deposits for the clues they contain about ancestral daily life!)  Unfortunately in our day carbon dioxide, an important greenhouse gas, likewise has been regarded as a waste not to be concerned about.

Historical Perspective: Production of Waste  The industrial revolution has brought with it a dramatic increase in the complexity of our daily life.  We use and discard products of manufacture, and burn quantities of energy derived from fossil fuels, that were inconceivable two centuries ago (please see the graphic below). 

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Diagram by Henry E. Auer
Pathway for humanity’s use of resources.  Each stage has costs associated with it.  Here we emphasize the costs incurred at the landfill stage.  The landfill can be a tract of land on earth, or a globalized atmospheric dumping ground for gases.
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Let’s consider some examples of problems attached to waste disposal, and how they have been resolved.

Household waste, including food waste and discarded common items considered to be “disposable”, has increased dramatically in recent decades.  The world’s population has doubled from three billion souls to six and one-half billion currently in about 50 years.  Much of this increase has been in countries with advanced economies that characteristically produce large amounts of waste.  As the population of the world has grown, so has its waste production.  In earlier centuries, disposal of waste was not a serious problem; land available for dumping waste far exceeded the need.  But this is no longer true.  While we in urban and suburban settings think little of waste disposal, there is in fact a cost associated with it.  Cities and towns typically provide waste disposal service as part of their operations.   New York City, for example, has run out of its own municipal landfills for solid waste.  It exports its refuse to other regions of the U. S. at a cost that was budgeted at $296 million for 2008.  This example shows that costs for dealing with waste must be clearly accounted for.

In recent decades in the U. S. many municipalities have implemented recycling programs directed at waste materials that can have a secondary use, such as aluminum and other metals, paper and various plastic materials. Many of these were originally used in packaging.  Costs associated with recycling may be considered to compensate for the original costs involved in preparing the packaging or other item for its first use.  Here again, local governments have recognized costs associated with wastes generated from human activities, and have accepted spending the money involved.  In 2008, New York City required $24 million for recycling activities, after accounting for revenue from the sale of recycled paper.  The total weight recycled was 611,000 tons.

Electronic products, including viewing personal computers, monitors, printers, and cell phones, have proliferated greatly in recent decades.  The components in these devices are frequently wired together with lead solder, the lead being a toxic heavy metal, and may contain other toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium and beryllium.  Regular and compact fluorescent bulbs contain mercury. In order to prevent these metals from leaching into our soils and water supplies, they should be collected and the toxic substances harvested from them.  In general, the costs involved in dealing with electronic waste are not built into the sales price of the item.  Thus the cycle for dealing with these substances is incomplete (see the preceding graphic); we mine and produce the toxic metals for manufacture of the final product, but do not complete the cycle for handling the toxic substances.   Only recently are recycling programs for electronic products and light bulbs being set up, and these are mostly entirely voluntary.  Society has not adequately recognized the costs involved when marketing and selling the products.

The problem of acid rain came to be recognized in the 1980’s.  The phenomenon refers in part to killing of fresh water fish, and of extensive areas of forest, by acidic components in the atmosphere.  The acidic components were identified as being produced primarily by coal-burning power generating plants upwind of the affected areas.  The coal is contaminated by sulfur, which burns to produce the acidic gas sulfur dioxide.  Burning also produces acidic oxides of nitrogen.  In clouds and raindrops the acidic gases produce sulfurous acid, nitrous acid and nitric acid when combined with water, all of which acidify groundwater when they fall to earth.  The increased acidity kills the waterways and forests, usually many hundreds of miles downwind, and frequently in a different state.  This led at first to the denial by the power companies to accept responsibility for the acid rain phenomenon.

Here again the cost of a waste, the acidic oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, originally was not built into the costs of providing electricity to the utilities’ customers.  By 1990 the Clean Air Act was amended to control these emissions, using a cap and trade market mechanism. The technology involves installing waste gas scrubbers that chemically remove the acidic gases.  By the last decade the program has been considered to be largely successful, reducing the acidic emissions considerably, at a cost estimated between $1-2 billion per year.  As recently as April 14, 2011, an agreement was reached between the Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates coal-fired electricity plants, and the Environmental Protection Agency, four states and environmental groups to close 18 such plants and modernize three dozen others with the objective of reducing acid rain. 

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the direct product obtained when any fossil fuel is burned in air to provide energy.  Mankind has treated CO2 as a neglectable product in this process.  Yet CO2 is the principal greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere by human activity.  Its amounts are unfathomably large, and have grown dramatically since beginning of the industrial revolution hand-in-hand as the production of coal, oil and natural gas have increased.  Fossil fuel extraction and CO2 production have grown at exponential rates because a) populations that demand the amenities of modern life are growing, b) more and more people around the world are moving from agrarian life to urbanized life styles, and c) urbanized life depends on homes, appliances and modes of transportation all of which consume larger amounts of energy.

Humanity is dumping more and more CO2, a greenhouse gas, into the “landfill” that is the earth’s atmosphere (see the preceding graphic) with each passing year.  Just as in the examples above, this CO2 brings with it a cost associated with the effects of its waste dumping.  Increasing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 produce worsening global warming, whose environmental impacts bring massive costs associated with alleviating their impacts.  These include aridity and drought in some regions with their associated decreases in crop yields and increased incidence and severity of forest fires; increased rainfall and flooding in other regions with their associated crop losses, property losses and human displacements; and rising sea levels, among others.  The costs of these harms are not built in to the economies of extraction and consumption of the fuels.  Just as in the other cases in the examples presented here, our CO2 economy must incorporate costs associated with, and institute measures directed toward, reducing the emission of CO2 as well as other manmade greenhouse gases.  We need to embark on these measures in order to limit global warming and its detrimental effects on humanity. 

Conclusion.  Just as in the cases of other commodities produced and consumed by humans, we must recognize and account for the CO2 waste product of our energy economy.  Simply dumping this waste into the earth’s atmosphere that is our CO2 “landfill” is harmful to life on earth, because of its effect of worsening global warming.  Recognizing the costs implicit in this waste production justifies the economic and technological investments needed to minimize CO2 emissions. 

© 2011 Henry Auer

1 comment:

  1. We can really say that carbon dioxide really a waste product of us human. But for the production of different plants, they used it as one of the most important material. But aside from this fact, I can hardly say that too much carbon was really bad.