For more than six days Earth has been our friend in the lunar skies. That fragile piece of blue with its ancient rafts of life will continue to be man's home as he journeys ever farther in the solar system. Apollo 17, December 14, 1972

Saturday, April 19, 2008

7. The Carbon Cycle - how it can help our understanding

Natural CO2 emissions as part of a closed ecosystem.
The main product, along with CO2, from the right hand side of the cycle is energy. If we consider ourselves, Homo sapiens, 'being alive' means our bodies are respiring and producing energy. To do this carbohydrates are effectively being burned in a very regulated way. The energy produced keeps the body functioning, acting and moving. That's life. By living we therefore cause CO2 emissions - all six billion of us within the biosphere. The same applies to every other living being in the biosphere. CO2 emissions are therefore an inevitable consequence of life. However the carbon cycle makes good use of the CO2 as we have discussed previously and maintains an equilibrium. It has worked well as a 'closed ecosystem' - an ecosystem that can regulate itself.

Extra-ordinary emissions in an inflating closed ecosystem
The increasing activity of our increasing population is challenging this closed and self regulating equilibrium. Our population is expanding at 200,000 per day; on top of this our increasing activity requires more energy and raw material consumption per capita. Let's take this issue in two parts:
  1. A human community with an increasing population can continue to grow as long as it has a food supply and has a means of dealing with its waste. (This is leaving to one side the other biological and sociological needs such as a place to breed, room to function and some form of governance.) Both of the food supply and the waste treatment require complementary communities of organisms living within the ecosystem being sufficiently active to keep the ecosystem in balance. Left to Nature, once these complementary activities fail to keep up the population growth will be restrained by starvation or pollution - both these are tough options and immensely challenging for the leaders of a human community.
  2. Even a static human community with an increasing activity level consumes more energy and raw materials and produces more waste. In our search for ever greater well-being this is exactly what is happening in the West. Again this only remains sustainable if the complementary communities of other organisms, through the carbon cycle, can become more industrious and keep providing us with the food, raw materials and energy to give us the goods and services we desire, as well as dealing with the waste we are producing.
Faced with these two forces, increasing population and the desire for greater well-being through increased consumption, the highly resourceful human race has spent the last two centuries exploiting non-biological means to generate the energy we need - we have been digging up fossil fuels, which contain carbon from outside today's biosphere. The biosphere therefore is no longer an entirely closed system. There is carbon being introduced with no complementary process for getting it out of the system. It is introduced as dense, tangible and measurable fossil fuels but is converted into an invisible and elusive waste problem - carbon dioxide. The fact that the level of CO2 is rising in the atmosphere is clear evidence that neither we nor nature is coping with this waste stream.

What is the carbon cycle suggesting we can do?
There are four new features on the carbon cycle diagram - three sets of orange dots reflecting where the regulation of carbon consumption could be applied and a green arrow depicting a shift from the biological process to the chemical process.

  1. Changing the masses.
    The upper set of orange dots on the biological and chemical processes. These represent each of the 6 billion human carbon emitters, with 200,000 more each day - from people at only subsistence living through to powerful large consumers, such as most of the western world. Pretend you are the Prime Minister. How difficult do you think it would be for you to stop emitting so much? How easy would it be to persuade your children to reduce? How easy would it be to make your friends and neighbours reduce? How easy would it be to make your constituents change their habits? How easy would it be to change the habits of your country? How easy would it be for your close allies to change? How easy would it be for your past and present enemies to go with you on an emissions reduction campaign? And how easy would it be to persuade a subsistence farmer not to have the level of well-being we have in the West? Looked at this way most people would think this approach is nearly impossible and yet this is what the West is attempting to do. I think there is a novel glimmer of hope and I will return to this in a later post.
  2. Changing the many.
    A set of three orange dots on the chemical process. This represents the big 'institutional' consumers of fossil fuels - the utilities, heavy industry, transport and so on. At least there is a finite number of these, they are organisations, they can be spoken to, they are regulated to some extent. If there were a global need to apply restraint it would easier to achieve using this option. There is currently considerable hope for carbon dioxide capture at these points but I think there are major drawbacks and limitations for this approach but we have been investigating other ways of reducing carbon consumption and CO2 emissions in this area by looking again at the old technologies of wood gas and charcoal production. This will be dealt with in a later post.
  3. Changing the few.
    An orange dot on the arrow depicting fossil fuel extraction from the subterranean. There are definitely a finite number of coal mines, oil-fields and gas rigs, run by a small number of energy companies and these are large and visible sites. Yes, they are powerful now, but for how long? Yes, their interests need to be respected. If you were Secretary General of the UN, with an urgent mandate to reduce emissions, where would you start - at 1,2 or 3?

  4. Making the most of our emissions.
    The green arrow depicting a shift from the biological process to the chemical process. At first sight this may appear counter-intuitive - you would probably consider me mad to suggest that you should burn your compost heap rather than let it moulder away. However this choice needs looking at carefully in the context of the diagram. A well managed compost heap takes biomass and produces mulch, carbon dioxide and heat. The heat is not made use of, other than to accelerate composting, so your mulch has caused CO2 emissions. If that same biomass was naturally dried and then effectively incinerated or processed into fuel, then mankind debatably would gain more benefit from your compost.
    There are considerable efforts going into processing biomass, specifically grown for bio-fuel.
    There is less but very interesting research into how to process large scale agricultural waste biomass into fuel.
    There are also valuable initiatives to rid landfill sites of biomass. In a landfill site biomass does not produce usable compost but produces methane which is a greenhouse gas of fifty times more power than CO2.

To summarise the argument, thus far, we will return to the Framework Diagram from post 4.

The biosphere
Life on earth takes place in a delicate and isolated ecosystem called the biosphere which relies entirely upon the unique chemistry of carbon. This biosphere is no more than a film on a tiny planet and extremely delicate. It is in constant movement and supports various cyclical processes which are highly balanced and interrelated.
The carbon cycle and the energy cycle
The carbon cycle is life's provider and the framework puts a renewed understanding of the carbon cycle at its very centre. Mankind needs sources of energy to exist and to be well (well-being) In its recent proliferation and increased activity levels it has found carbon-bearing fuel outside the biosphere to meet its energy needs. In burning these fuels the carbon cycle is no longer in balance. This is leading to the biosphere increasing in overall temperature due to the greenhouse effect. By understanding the carbon cycle it is possible to evaluate which measures are likely to be the most efficacious.
Economics and Politics, Philosophy and Moral Values
The ownership of energy production bestows enormous power on the few - however this situation can be seen as potentially our saviour. The framework finally recognises that all this energy fuelled activity is dedicated to what we really want - our desires and aspirations and what we are prepared to sacrifice.

The next two posts look at some secondary threats to the carbon cycle involving oceanography, climate science and demographics. That will then complete the initial analysis and from this a framework for effective action will be proposed which will draw upon, in part, the findings we discovered along the way.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting analysis again.

So what I take from that is that the most productive thing would be to somehow stop the oil and gas companies from taking the stuff out of the ground. Easy if you say it quick!

Jeremy said...

Kevin - I totally agree with you on both your statements. What has been troubling me over the last 12 months is that the logic seems to work but when I discuss it with regular friends and associates of mine they agree with the premise but instantly dismiss it as as too difficult, and it does my 'cred' no good at all.
In response I've been pursuing two themes:
1. At the eco-political level how to make the change more palatable.
Our current economic difficulties are beginning to put a curb on our profligacy, but more importantly the price of oil is naturally rising. Since 1994, when I was buying motor fuel for Sainbury's 14 years ago, even allowing for inflation the price of crude has tripled by the end of 2007 (ref Now, it has not got that much harder to extract so someone is getting immensely rich. It used to be the global oil companies, but now, because of different deal structures it is the state oil companies. Despite supporting Chelsea FC there are far more worthwhile causes for Mr Abramovitch's astronomic wealth.

Jeremy said...

I inadvertently published half way through.

2. At the technology level, is there a way of ameliorating the problem? Maybe it is inevitable that we will keep on digging this stuff up because it is so easy and profitable. However could we process it differently so that we burn hydro-carbons but leave the carbon behind? In other words the hydrogen gets burned, but the carbon is left as solid carbon which is easy to handle. To my excitement and delight when I went back to first principles I discovered that the the thermodynamics makes sense and is practical from an engineering point of view and has been used in the past. I'll be doing a post on this shortly.

Anonymous said...

Your post really got me thinking. If we take oil out of the ground and make it into non-biodegradable plastics, is that another 'safe' option? Or is it a time-bomb for future generations as well as creating a plastic bag epidemic?

Jeremy said...

Your comment got me thinking and modifying my answer. Thanks to a computer crash my first answer got wiped before I'd saved my comments so this is the twice-considered version.

Non-biodegradeable plastic is very interesting concept which would be a safe option, on two provisos:

firstly that the plastic is truly inert so it won't release its carbon into the biosphere, even after 25 years in landfill ( this may be difficult);
secondly it is disposed of as intended - ie re-used or buried in a controlled way but never burned. This is counter intuitive and counter to the 'waste hierachy' which considers landfill as the worst possible option: your idea upturns that.

Your question about a legacy is easy to answer if we meet proviso one. There are grandiose schemes for extracting CO2 from the environment, pressurising it and pumping it down into oilwells. Now which is the most dangerous legacy - a load of inert plastic, or a volatile gas under pressure?
Your idea is also counter-intuitive to many environmentalists who would see an indestructable plastic bag as an eyesore. We would see it as a bit
of locked up carbon. If proviso two was followed through then the
environmentalist would be happy.

Anonymous said...

One of the problems we face, I think, is that we lump together:
- lifestyle issues, eg litter looks ugly
- biodiversity, eg polar bears drowning
- worries about cancer (nuclear)
- climate change

James Lovelock's analysis shows that climate change is far more of a problem than any of the others. We should be much more worried about the disappearance of algae from the oceans than tigers from the forests, because the algae make the clouds that cool the planet, and the algae doesn't like warm water, so die as it heats up ...

We should be concerned about both, of course, but not confuse them.

Jeremy said...

Still on plastics....

Some serendipity here. An article in yesterday's FT was brought to my attention late last night ( - you need to register (FOC) to read it fully.

The article, entitled 'The Elephant in the Room', is highly informative and does indeed explain the obvious truths which are going ignored or seen awry. It signs off with a quote from a recycler - "People with the best intentions can actually be working in a counterproductive way."

With particular reference to ur debate, plastics use just 2% of oil production. This informs our debate.... making that proportion of plastics, which are biodegradeable, non-biodegradeable, is going to reduce the use of oil by a lot less than 2%, which is a pity. This is where the 'balance sheet idea' from our correspondence a month ago comes into the framework. Once we know the nature and scale of the problem it is quite easy to determine which measures are likely to be the most effective.

The article also puts a strong case for how plastics have become crucial to the way we want to live now, particularly in their use for packaging. Mark my words - the way we want live now - it's back to the framework. Even the often cited cucumber should, on balance, be shrinkwrapped. Again the frameworks allows us to see th3e connection between upsetting the balance of the carbon cycle and our desires.

Finally it does impel me to bring forward a posting on the waste hierarchy.

Jeremy said...

Kevin's Lumping together environmental issues

I agree with you, and I will redouble my efforts to keep to climate change, first and foremost. Wondering Mind in his zaniest video where he sweeps away with his arm all the cans representing other issues thinks similarly too, I believe.

Thanks for the areas for investigation regarding oceanic algae - I'll look into those before my next-but-one post.

Anonymous said...


I certainly wasn't suggesting that you were guilty of that. Your blog is helping me to sort a few things out in my own mind, continuing a process that's been going on for a while.

Jeremy said...

I did not think you were either, but it was a good reminder for me. Glad it's helping you, and do keep pushing me.

Anonymous said...

I just found this today. A perfect example of what Climate Change campaigning looks like WITHOUT a framework like yours. Noise pollution, health issues, stop using plastic bags ... it's all one big mess.

Jeremy said...

Can I suggest you to look at my website. The 28 ideas you list (below), when looked at objectively, in the light of the framework we are developing, have varying levels of effectiveness. The six underlined ones (underlines don't come out on this blog - nos 1,3,13,17,22,27) are the only ones I would support and these are not the ‘silver bullets’ which will make all the difference. Humankind needs to focus on the things that will really make a difference.

1. Travel lightly – compromise on car and plane journeys, use trains and buses where practical, try to avoid excessive commuting distances!
2. Use energy saving light bulbs
3. Adjust Your Thermostat, Insulate and Draught proof your home
4. Switch to a “green” electricity account
5. Insulate Your Boiler
6. Replace Old Appliances with new Energy Efficient ones
7. Fill the kettle only to the level necessary for the number of drinks needed!
8. Save water and energy: Have a shower instead of a bath, don’t leave the tap running when brushing your teeth
9. Buy Products Locally
10. Stop junk mail coming to your house. Register with the Mailing Preference Service: Freepost 22, London W1E 7EZ; Tel: 020 7291 3310
11. Recycle
12. Buy Recycled Products
13. Buy Minimally Packaged Goods and Reduce your Waste
14. Buy a Hybrid Car or
15. Buy a Fuel Efficient Car
16. Inflate your tyres
17. Don't leave your engine idling
18. Plant a Tree
19. Use a Push Lawn Mower
20. Unplug Un-Used Electronic Appliances
21. Put on a Sweater
22. Air Dry Your Clothes
23. Buy Organic Food
24. Avoid plastic bags
25. Turn off Your Computer
26. Reduce your meat intake
27. Fill the Dishwasher and washing machine
28. Buy an energy monitor for your home (watch how much energy you’re using in your home)

How far does a litre of fuel get a person in a car, train or plane? - about the same.

It’s not the plane that is the problem. It is our choice to travel 7000 miles to NYC to do our Xmas shopping, rather than going to Oxford St. Or going to Kenya or Florida, rather than Cornwall on holiday.

I share your concern for the long term sustainability of the planet, but I believe politicians are looking for a small number of highly effective measures. These will relate to our desires, aspirations and ultimately what we think makes us happy. We have to learn that consuming ever more each year does not bring happiness.

Fruitful areas, in my opinion, are:
1. Consuming less raw material and energy per capita
2. Making prudent use of waste, including filling spent oilwells with plastics.
3. Curtail digging up fossil fuels
4. Burning only the hydrogen in hydrocarbons