Is carbon dioxide a pollutant? What you need to know about CO2

If President Obama can’t get from Congress what he wants, he’ll make sure it’s provided by one of his many government agencies. Congress votes against his cherished cap and trade legislation? No worries – Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the EPA, will deliver what Congress would not. In December of 2009 she signed the following two findings under a section of the Clean Air Act:

Endangerment Finding: The Administrator finds that the current and projected concentrations of the six key well-mixed greenhouse gases … in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.

Cause or Contribute Finding: The Administrator finds that the combined emissions of these well-mixed greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles and new motor vehicle engines contribute to the greenhouse gas pollution which threatens public health and welfare.

With unelected government agency officials catering to Obama’s wishes, rules like the EPA’s endangerment findings emerge in direct violation of democratic and constitutional principles.

Obviously, the two findings are directed first and foremost against CO2. Is there any basis to the claim that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and endangers mankind?

To find out we need to know first how exactly a pollutant is defined. According to Wikipedia it is a chemical substance or energy that “causes instability, disorder, harm or discomfort to the ecosystem.” Pollutants are defined as either man-made or naturally occurring. Natural substances are only considered pollutants when they exceed natural levels.

Does carbon dioxide qualify? Let’s find out.

1. What is carbon dioxide?

Carbon dioxide is a gas, colorless, odorless and non-poisonous at low concentrations. It’s a natural chemical compound consisting of two oxygen atoms bonded to one single carbon atom. Carbon dioxide makes up 0.039% or  391 ppmv (parts per million by volume) of Earth’s atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide is plant food. Sunlight, water and carbon dioxide are absorbed by plants, algae and certain bacteria to produce organic compounds. In this way, plants extract carbon from carbon dioxide while creating oxygen as a waste product. At night, during respiration, plants emit carbon dioxide.

2. Where does carbon dioxide come from?

  • animals and humans breathe out carbon dioxide
  • plants release carbon dioxide at night
  • carbon dioxide is emitted from volcanoes, hot springs and geysers
  • it is freed when plants and animals decompose
  • it is freed when carbonate rocks dissolve
  • burning of carbon based fuels (wood, coal, oil, gas) frees carbon dioxide

3. What is carbon?

Carbon is the chemical basis of all life.

It is a nonmetallic chemical element that has been known since antiquity.

Its name comes from Latin carbo, meaning coal.

Wikipedia writes that “Carbon is the 15th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, and the fourth most abundant element in the universe by mass after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen. It is present in all known life forms, and in the human body carbon is the second most abundant element by mass (about 18.5%) after oxygen.”

There are almost 10 million known carbon compounds in the Solar System. Carbon produces more compounds than all other chemical elements combined. Compounds made with carbon and hydrogen are called organic compounds. Almost 18% of the human body by weight consists of such organic compounds.

4. What is the difference between carbon and carbon dioxide?

Carbon dioxide is oxygenized carbon – it is generated when carbon combines with oxygen.

5. How much carbon exists on Earth?

Earth’s carbon reservoirs are gigantic.

The greatest one is the lithosphere – the outermost shell of our planet (crust and upper mantle). It contains an estimated 25 quadrillion (that’s 25 000 000 billion) tons of carbon. Nothing else comes even close. Oceans contain around 39 trillion (39 000 billion) tons of carbon. The atmosphere holds roughly 753 billion tons and the biosphere 563 billion tons of carbon.

Every year about 80 billion tons of carbon is absorbed by the oceans from the atmosphere and a similar amount is given back to the atmosphere. Earth’s biosphere absorbs about 120 billion tons each year from the atmosphere and roughly 60 billion tons of carbon is returned to the atmosphere. Another 60 billion tons of carbon transits from the biosphere into the surface area of the lithosphere and is eventually returned as carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

6. How much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere?

Of the entire amount of carbon dioxide held in the oceans, rocks, soils, air, plants and animals only about 0.002% can be found in the Earth’s atmosphere.

7. What is the carbon cycle?

The term “carbon cycle” is used to describe the way in which carbon travels throughout the lithosphere (upper crust and mantle of Earth), hydrosphere (oceans), biosphere and atmosphere of the Earth.

8. Is carbon dioxide a greenhouse gas?

That’s what it’s called – but wrongly so. It’s a misnomer. The increase in temperature inside a greenhouse is caused by a reduction in convection, i.e. warmer air rises up but cannot escape from the greenhouse. This true greenhouse effect inside a greenhouse has nothing to do with atmospheric gases like CO2.

9. Does carbon dioxide warm the atmosphere?

Yes, it does – and luckily so. Although there is no greenhouse gas effect, there is an infrared absorption and remittance effect. Without water vapor, CO2 and several other atmospheric gases the temperature on Earth would be -18 Celsius. Thanks to the infrared absorption effect there is more than bacterial life on Earth – plants, animals, humans. And we are enjoying a balmy and pleasant, life-sustaining average temperature of 15 Celsius.

10. What is the infrared absorption effect?

It is the warming effect that carbon dioxide and other atmospheric gases have. It is usually mislabeled as greenhouse effect.  Some sunlight that reaches the surface of the Earth is absorbed and increases the temperature of Earth’s surface.  But some of it is reflected back into space as infrared radiation. Atmospheric CO2 – as all other infrared absorption gases – absorbs this infrared radiation that is reflected from Earth and re-emits it in all directions. Some of the re-emitted radiation goes out to space and some of it warms the atmosphere.

11. Are there other infrared absorption gases in the atmosphere?

Yes. The most abundant infrared absorption gas is water vapor. Other gases are methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone.

The global average content of water vapor in the atmosphere is believed to be between approximately 2% and 4% – many times more than CO2 with 0.039 %.

About 60% of the warming effect caused by absorption of infrared radiation can be contributed to water vapor and about 20% to carbon dioxide. Why 20% if C02 makes up only 0.039 % of the atmosphere? The reason is that carbon dioxide absorbs infrared radiation more efficiently than water vapor.

12. How much carbon dioxide is needed to absorb infrared radiation?

A little CO2 goes a long way in absorbing infrared radiation. Adding more CO2 after a certain initial amount of CO2 does not make a great difference in the absorption rate since most of the radiation has been absorbed already:

The first 20 ppmv of CO2 operating as a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere has the greatest effect on temperature. After about 200 ppmv, CO2 has done its job as a greenhouse gas and has absorbed almost all the infra-red energy it can absorb. Once the atmosphere is at the present CO2 content … a doubling or quadrupling of the atmospheric CO2 content will have very little effect on atmospheric temperature. (Ian Plimer)

13. Does more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lead to a runaway greenhouse effect or tipping point?

No, it does not lead to a runaway greenhouse effect. Why? Because there is only so much infrared radiation to be absorbed.  Thomas J. Nelson puts it this way in “Cold Facts on Global Warming”:

It is generally accepted that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already high enough to absorb virtually all the infrared radiation in the main carbon dioxide absorption bands over a distance of less than one km. Thus, even if the atmosphere were heavily laden with carbon dioxide, it would still only cause an incremental increase in the amount of infrared absorption over current levels.

This is why in Earth’s past there have been times with levels of carbon dioxide as high as 6000 ppmv (compared to today’s 391 ppmv). There was no runaway greenhouse effect, no tipping point. In fact, the highest levels of atmospheric CO2 occurred during periods of glaciation.

14. How much atmospheric carbon dioxide is caused by humans?

The amount of carbon dioxide that is produced by human industrial production is very small. It is estimated at around 3%. The overwhelming amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide is released by nature: the oceans, soils, volcanoes and the biosphere.

Oceans, soils and plants already absorb at least half of the human CO2 emissions and human emissions are dwarfed by the balanced natural system. For example, termite methane emissions are 20 times more potent than human CO2 emissions, and massive volcanic eruptions (e.g. Pinatubo) emit the equivalent of a year’s human CO2 emissions in a few days. (Ian Plimer)

15. Are there valid reasons to decrease the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that humans produce?

Humans produce a small amount of carbon dioxide compared to CO2 produced by nature. But more importantly, additional increases of atmospheric CO2 do not lead to significant increases in temperature (see 12 and 18). Taking into account the modest quantity of human caused CO2 as well as the fact that the infrared absorption effect of CO2 follows the law of diminishing marginal returns there is no valid reason to decrease human combustion of fossil fuels. The impact of human produced CO2 is so small to be practically insignificant.

16. Has the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere been increasing over the last centuries?

It is not trivial to take reliable CO2 measurements. The method with which CO2 was measured changed in 1961 from a chemical method (the Pettenkofer method) to infra-red spectroscopy which is simpler and faster.

Around 90,000 measurements of atmospheric CO2 were done between 1812 and 1961. These data do not show a slow, steady increase of CO2. There were peaks in atmospheric CO2 in 1825, 1857 and 1942. The 1942 CO2 level was 400 ppmv and higher than the current level. Ian Plimer writes that “a plot of the CO2 measured by these methods shows that for much of the 19th Century and from 1935 to 1950, the atmospheric CO2 was higher than at present and varied considerably.”

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ignored the entire series of 90,000 CO2 measurements by the Pettenkofer method without explaining why.

The usual claim that CO2 levels have consistently risen from 280 ppmv in 1850 to today’s level of 391 ppmv is therefore an oversimplification.

However, a rise in CO2 levels can be shown for roughly the last five decades. Measurements from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii show an increase of 19.4% between 1959 (315 ppmv) and 2004 (377 ppmv). Since then atmospheric CO2 has increased further to today’s 391 ppmv.

17. Why are levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide increasing?

Nobody knows for sure. The amount of carbon dioxide caused by industrial production is far too small to explain the increase in CO2 within the last decades. Perhaps we are witnessing the long-term effects of the Medieval Warming (900 – 1300 AD). Increases in CO2 are lagging behind increases in temperature by about 700 to 1000 years.

It seems very likely that the reasons for the increase in CO2 levels can be found in natural causes. For example, volcanic eruptions or climate patterns like El Niño/La Niña  influence the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Fred Goldberg writes in a recent study about the increase of concentrations of atmospheric CO2:

Studies of the temperature anomalies during the last 27 years show a close relationship with the varying increase of CO2 in the atmosphere.  … La Niñas reduce CO2 values and El Niños increase them. This close relationship strongly indicates that ocean temperatures and the solubility of CO2 in seawater control the amount of CO2 being absorbed or released by the oceans. It is therefore likely that the increased CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is due to a natural global warming and that CO2 produced through fossil fuel combustion by humans can not disrupt this balance.

18. Does an increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide lead to an increase of temperature in the atmosphere?

Yes, but only to a small and limited increase in temperature. For example, doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would not lead to a doubling of the warming effect that CO2 has. The reason for this is that the absorption of light follows an exponential curve when the amount of the absorbing substance increases:

… the effect of carbon dioxide is roughly logarithmic. Each time carbon dioxide (or some other greenhouse gas) is doubled, the increase in temperature is the same as the previous increase. The reason for this is that, eventually, all the long wave radiation that can be absorbed has already been absorbed. It would be analogous to closing more and more shades over the windows of your house on a sunny day — it soon reaches the point where doubling the number of shades can’t make it any darker.

Another way of looking at it is by thinking of adding blankets to your bed on a cold night: if you have no blankets, adding one will have a big effect. If you have a thousand blankets, adding another thousand will have an immeasurably small effect. (Thomas J. Nelson)

19. Does an increase in atmospheric temperature lead to an increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide?

Yes. Increases in CO2 are lagging behind increases in temperature by about 700 to 1000 years. In other words, an increase in temperature – caused for example by variations in solar activity – seems to be followed by an increase in C02 with a lag of several hundred years. How does that happen? Earth’s oceans contain a tremendous amount of dissolved C02. Interestingly, the colder the water the more dissolved C02 it can contain. Therefore, if the oceans’ surface water warms due to an increase in the temperature of the air some of the water’s C02 is released into the atmosphere.

It takes hundreds of years before CO2 dissolved deep in the oceans rises up to the surface and is eventually released into the atmosphere. Therefore, the fact that CO2 levels have been increasing in the last decades might tell us about processes that took place a long time ago and have very little to do with today’s combustion of fossil fuels.

20. How are plants affected by high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide?

Plants thrive at high levels of CO2. They flourish when levels of carbon dioxide are significantly higher than today’s 391 ppmv. This is why the level of carbon dioxide in commercial greenhouses is often tripled to about 1000 ppmv. At this level of CO2 plants grow significantly faster. Perhaps you have heard someone say that it is good for your plants when you talk to them: they love the CO2 you exhale.

During the history of the planet, CO2 levels have continuously fluctuated. During periods of high CO2 in the air, life underwent massive expansion and diversification, whereas in periods of low CO2, like today, plant life is not as energetic… Early in the Earth’s history, the CO2 content of air was tens to hundreds of times higher than today and, over time, this CO2 has been stored as carbon compounds in rocks, oil, gas, coal and carbonate rocks. (Ian Plimer)

21. How are Humans affected by high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide?

At very high levels carbon dioxide has an asphyxiating effect on humans. Our current CO2 levels are 0.039% or 391 ppmv (parts per million by volume).

The “Free Encyclopedia of Building & Environmental Inspection” describes the response of humans to greatly elevated levels of carbon dioxide:

At 1% concentration of carbon dioxide CO2 (10,000 ppmv) and under continuous exposure at that level, such as in an auditorium filled with occupants and poor fresh air ventilation, some occupants are likely to feel drowsy.

The concentration of carbon dioxide must be over about 2% (20,000 ppmv) before most people are aware of its presence unless the odor of an associated material (auto exhaust or fermenting yeast, for instance) is present at lower concentrations.

Above 2%, carbon dioxide may cause a feeling of heaviness in the chest and/or more frequent and deeper respirations.

Breathing rate doubles at 3% (30,000 ppmv) CO2 and is four times the normal rate at 5% (50,000 ppmv) CO2.

Toxic levels of carbon dioxide: at levels above 5% concentration CO2 is directly toxic.

To recapitulate: our current level of CO2 is 391 ppmv. Levels of CO2 must be 51 times that much (roughly 20,000 ppmv) in order for humans to feel any ill effects.

22. Has global temperature decreased since 1998 while carbon dioxide levels have continued to rise?

Yes, contrary to the predictions of global warming protagonists global temperature has somewhat decreased since 1998. Carbon dioxide levels, on the other hand, continue to rise. These two facts are irreconcilable with the claim that CO2 is the primary cause of increases in atmospheric temperature.

According to the EPA, the endangerment and pollution findings “are based on careful consideration of the full weight of scientific evidence.” Clearly, this is not the case.

CO2 at its current level is not a pollutant since it does not cause instability, disorder, harm or discomfort to the ecosystem. Nor does CO2 exceed natural levels.

The EPA’s endangerment findings are politically motivated. They are inspired by politicians willing to use pseudo-scientific claims in order to reach ideologically motivated goals.

Cheap electricity and cheap gasoline are the bedrock foundation of modern life. Without them life in industrialized countries would revert to hardship and suffering. Restricting developing countries from obtaining cheap electricity and cheap gasoline means no less than confinement to a life shaped by poverty and disease.