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Differentiating carbon

Most would agree that the atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) is a problem, yet there is a fundamental difference of opinion over how best to tackle the situation. At the core of this difference lies diametrically opposed views on how to treat the CO2 emission source and the fact that the atmosphere is entirely source agnostic.

Global carbon dioxide flux, expressed in billion tonnes per annum, highlighting the variable interaction between emission sources and sinks (illustration courtesy Global Carbon Project 2013).

Global carbon dioxide flux, expressed in billion tonnes per annum, highlighting the variable interaction between emission sources and sinks (illustration courtesy Global Carbon Project 2013).

Why make a transition and put a price on carbon in the first place may seem like a superfluous question. Leave aside the finite nature of fossil carbon resources and the intensifying geo-political tensions associated with its limited territorial concentrations and diminishing availability as reason enough. The international research community by and large agrees that rising greenhouse gas (GHG) levels in the atmosphere, in particular the rapid accumulation rate of carbon dioxide (CO2) in Earth history terms, is one of the key mechanisms behind global warming and climate change. Furthermore this accumulation can largely be attributed to human activities over the last two and a half centuries. More importantly these emissions need to be capped and reduced to prevent further atmospheric CO2 accumulation. In other words CO2 is a pollutant.

However a fundamental difference of opinion, mirrored by the plethora of national and regional policies and an absence of binding global carbon reduction targets with non-compliance penalties, is how to best to tackle the situation. At the core of this difference lies diametrically opposed views on how to treat the CO2 emission source compounded by differing views on the time line to use for the various carbon cycles and sub-cycles and the fact that the atmosphere itself is entirely source agnostic.

This is not always apparent in the myriad of papers, calculations, editorials, opt-eds, claims and counter-claims whenever the use of biomass or biofuels comes up for discussion. Often complicated, confusing and contradictory these turn up more often then not well-timed prior a policy decision under various guises; carbon offset, carbon neutrality, carbon debt, carbon sequestration, carbon sinks and indirect land use change (ILUC), land-grabbing, carbon footprint to mention a few.

Mark well that it is the use of biomass for energy, especially a ”dedicated” use of crops, that is so hotly contested in CO2 terms, not it’s other uses. This is at best a logical pitfall well illustrated in the food vs fuel debate. What is food if not a fuel? Food, feed, fodder and all other plant or animal derived products are all forms of stored solar energy. Practically every living creature derives its energy and “building blocks” from consuming plants and or other creatures. Carbon is transferred and leaked, as CO2, at each transfer point along the consumption or conversion chain. A thermal-chemical-biological conversion of a carbon-containing compound, regardless if it is hydrocarbons or carbohydrates, releases some measure of CO2.

Essentially it boils down to whether or not there should be any difference in how we view and treat carbon emissions arising from biogenic sources including all associated activites over time and those arising from fossil or geological sources.  Given that net CO2 accumulation can clearly be attributed to emissions from fossil and geological sources as shown in the figure above, the answer would seem obvious. So too does the logical solution to the problem. A large proportion of these net emissions need to be “retired” from the biogenic carbon cycle. Not offset or sequestered in temporary biogenic storage but removed, permanently, from the biogenic cycle.

As a pollutant there is a price or penalty to pay to cover the cost of repairing or mitigating the damage and incentivise the reduction or elimination of the pollutant source. In this context applying a polluter pays principal (PPP) such as a carbon tax on fossil carbon regardless of the end-use, seems most appropriate.

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