Sheahen, Thomas P. "CO-2 Tug-of-War."
Independent Energy magazine
April 1999

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Addiction -- it's a frightening word. Yet the most addictive man-made substance in the whole world goes unnoticed. That substance is electricity. Once hooked on electricity, nobody has kicked the habit." But what are its side effects?

To meet the growing world demand for electricity, tremendous amounts of fossil fuels (mostly coal) are burned every day in power plants. The large amount of CO-2 released in the burning of fossil fuels raises the question of possible climate change due to the greenhouse effect. Infrared radiation, which would normally escape into space, tends to be trapped by a blanket of CO-2.

Therefore, putting more CO-2 into the atmosphere ought to heat up the planet. Sounds plausible, but the scientific evidence about this is simply inconclusive. The best experimental data (from satellite observation) do not show any global warming, so far.

Acting on the presumption of inevitable global warming, most industrialized countries are seeking ways to reduce the amount of CO-2 they emit. However, many critics have called the Kyoto treaty too hasty, especially since not all countries will agree to participate and abide by limits on emissions. Manufacturing may shift to developing countries that don't limit their CO-2 emissions. This might become a major political issue in the year 2000 elections.

At this time, little attention has been given to just how numerically overwhelming will be the CO-2 emitted by the non-participating countries, and how futile will be the efforts of the industrialized nations to cut back on CO-2.

In the United States, the average person uses almost 31 kWh per day -- more than 1 kW constantly. Burning fossil fuels produces about 70 percent of that electricity. America's generating capacity stands at 2.7 kW per person, so there is no problem supplying the average person on an average day. Still, America could certainly be more frugal.

In other developed nations (England, France, Germany, Japan), the per capita average ranges from 600 to 800 W. At the other end of the scale, in the developing countries, where a few cities are electrified but rural areas are without power, the number is much lower: Brazil uses 0.18 kW per capita, Mexico 0.14 kW, Thailand 0.14 kW, and Peru 0.06 kW. India is way down at 0.047 kW. China has a per capita electricity use of 0.078 kW.

Electricity growth and economic development go hand-in-hand. The goal of the developing world is to elevate its electricity use to the European level within the next 50 years.

If the United States were to curtail its electricity use, there would surely be some reduction in the CO-2 emitted from generators that burn fossil fuel. But how much? In fact, if the United States were to eliminate all electricity, stepping backward a full century and totally shutting down, the decrease in power consumption is easy to calculate: 266,000,000 people x 1,300 W/person = 346,000,000 W = 346 GW.

Meanwhile, China has begun a massive program of building coal-burning power plants to generate electricity for its 1.2 billion people. Over about 40 years of construction, China hopes to come up to parity with most other industrialized nations, which implies power use of 0.6 kW = 600 W per person. A typical major coal-burner generates about 1 billion watts = 1 GW. How many of these will China need?

1,200,000,000 people x 600 W/person = 720,000,000 W = 720 GW.

China's per capita power use is well below 0.1 kW; only about 165 GW capacity is in place. But China has a 600-year supply of coal, so it intends to build more than 500 new major coal-burning power plants over the next 40 years. That means more than one new plant will open per month, producing a lot of CO-2.

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Further, India's 970 million people, presently consuming less than 0.05 kW per person, need more power. When all the world's planned/hoped for development is added up, global CO-2 emissions will roughly quadruple today's levels.

China, India, Mexico and many other countries were very polite while declining to participate in the treaty negotiated at Kyoto. "As soon as we catch up" was the recurring phrase. The developing countries certainly don't have any sense of alarm -- "If America sees something wrong, let America work on a solution." They've got more important problems to overcome, striving to raise their standards of living.

How much can the United States curtail realistically? 10 percent? 20 percent? The term "half measure" comes to mind. Even if the entire industrialized world completely shut down, still it wouldn't be enough to offset the new CO-2 coming from China. There is simply going to be more CO-2 in the years ahead. Period.

Fortunately, there is another solution to the C)-2 problem, but it isn't found in simple computational models. It's a biological solution called sequestration. Plant life locks up carbon atoms while releasing oxygen. Every piece of wood furniture represents a few more pounds of sequestered carbon. Shellfish in the ocean capture dissolved CO-2 and calcium hydroxide, forming calcium carbonate into their shells. They eventually die and the shells fall to the bottom of the ocean, and that carbon is sequestered for millions of years. Nature contains many such mechanisms to maintain balance by using up whatever chemicals are available -- we didn't originate recycling.

It may seem weird to try to think "from a plant's point of view," but the average tree is basically starving. The CO-2 concentration in air is only about 350 parts per million and water is around 1.5 percent -- that's all the food trees have. Meanwhile, the waste product of their photosynthesis, oxygen, comprises 21 percent of the air. If a little extra CO-2 comes along, some tree will grab it and grow a bit stronger.

To rely on plant life to save us from the CO-2 problem makes most human beings very uncomfortable. We feel we should "do something." But there is no chemical solution. Perhaps if we try again with a new generation of nuclear reactors, or some breakthrough in materials science research leads to more efficient solar cells that are finally worth their cost, then someday in the future fossil fuels may diminish from widespread use. But for the foreseeable future, the amount of CO-2 in air is going to increase, and through biological processes a new equilibrium point will be reached between plants and animals.

The best scientific evidence suggests the new state of the planet will differ very little from what we experience today.