February 16, 2005 | Graham

What’s the right amount of CO2 in the atmosphere?

Today the Kyoto protocol comes into effect. As a result the media has been deluged with a tsunami of pro and anti-Kyoto voices, but I have yet to hear anyone ask, or answer, the most pertinent issue of all: What is the optimal concentration of atmospheric CO2 from a human point of view?
What all sides in the debate tacitly admit, but most frequently ignore, particularly the enviro-politicians, is that we live in an age of relative CO2 scarcity. We can be quite certain of this because all of the CO2 that we are putting into the atmosphere originally came from plant and animal life and was sequestered when the animals died. As the price of fossil fuels will never ever go high enough to justify digging or piping up all this fossil fuel, and as recovery rates are always less than 100%, we can also be sure that we will never even get close to exceeding levels of CO2 from the past.
We can also be quite certain that, at least at conditions prevailing in the past, CO2 levels of these magnitudes are not inimical to life, otherwise the fossil fuels wouldn’t exist in the first place. In fact, temperatures at times in the past were much higher than they are now, yet the world managed to support mega-fauna, like the dinosaurs.
We also know that CO2, far from being a pollutant, is an essential element of the food cycle. What’s more, we know that, at least for plant growth, current levels of CO2 are sub-optimal. The same could be said of temperature for humans in some areas. Antartica, for example , a large potential human habitat, only became covered by ice some 5 million years ago. Large northern polar areas are also less accomodating of humans than they have been, even in recent times, because of currently cold climates.
So increased carbon dioxide levels might be just what the doctor ordered. In fact, if we had gone on sequestering carbon at the previous rate perhaps our ancestors in a few million years would have been struggling to feed themselves, or keep warm.
The Kyoto scenarios are almost uniformly pessimistic. This seems unrealistic to me. Isn’t it about time someone did up a balance sheet? It might be we need more carbon dioxide rather than less.

Posted by Graham at 9:22 am | Comments (7) |
Filed under: Environment


  1. “the most pertinent issue of all: What is the optimal concentration of atmospheric CO2 from a human point of view?” – and what about the other species that live here, or don’t they count? it is precisely this human-centric viewpoint that has led us to this disastrous state which it seems is yet to be recognised by a population in denial.

    Comment by aj — February 16, 2005 @ 10:21 am

  2. So which species’ view do you suggest we take. We can’t keep them all happy!

    Comment by Graham Young — February 16, 2005 @ 10:40 am

  3. We’re not in denial aj. Just a little wary after decades of false scares by environmentalists, starting from mass starvation to natural resource shortages.

    Comment by Sukrit Sabhlok — February 16, 2005 @ 4:36 pm

  4. Surely the most pertinent question of all is “Does all this hoo-hah really matter in the grand scheme?” Let’s face it, Graham. Our planet doies not exist at the behest of humanity. If we fuck it up, we pay the price. It’s fairly simple really.

    Comment by Niall — February 16, 2005 @ 6:24 pm

  5. from 48 ppm in 1900 to 250 ppm now.
    Is that a substantial increase? Against what scale? will it bring about climate change? Is it all our fault?
    do we really know that acting to protect the ozone layer has been a success? How can that be proven?
    But greenhouse theory isn’t some new science – its been identified as early as 1870 by fourier, later given more weight by our analysis of the planet venus, as numerous scientific tests in both phsyical and abstract greenhouses models across the planet.
    Sadly we must resign ourselves to the possibility of us inducing climate change. We must acknowledge that we have the potential, and the responsibility as a result of our inherited power as the most advanced sentient species on the planet, to look after all life, big or small.

    Comment by alphacoward — February 16, 2005 @ 6:28 pm

  6. Uber Issue – Climate Change

    The Kyoto Protocol comes into force today. This is a significant step forward in global collaborative efforts to prevent rapid climate change. The Protocol is a completely insufficient set of measures for tackling this major threat, but the very act …

    Comment by Senator Andrew Bartlett — February 16, 2005 @ 10:38 pm

  7. I’m not sure why it is necessary to nominate a specific CO2 figure. We are inevitably dealing with an inexact area of science, but there is now ample evidence that the huge and rapid hike in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) is making it likely that we will have to endure significant and rapid changes to global climate. Focusing on one specific number isn’t the priority – getting much more action to reduce emissions is.
    Some people suggest reductions need to be 10%, some 50%, I’ve even seen 80%. Given our lamentable lack of action to date, I use the precise and well known scientific measurement of ‘LOTS & LOTS’! Once there’s some sign of serious action being taken, I’ll worry about getting more precise.
    Whilst the science is ‘inexact’, that shouldn’t be misrepresented as ‘unreliable’ and used an excuse for not acting. I acknowledge Sukrit’s comment about scares on other issues that may have lacked scientific validity. As an environmentalist myself, I’d say that we may be paying an awful price for crying wolf too many times on some other issues (although I don’t wish to imply that people weren’t genuine in raising concerns).
    There is always the possibility that the thousands of scientisists, environmentalists and others are all wrong about climate change, but we can’t play chicken with the future.

    Comment by Andrew Bartlett — February 17, 2005 @ 10:05 am

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