It is no longer a matter of saving the planet, but a matter of saving the human race. We are just a blink in the eye of a spec of a bit of dust in the history of our planet. When we are long gone, it will remain. The ecosystems on our planet have evolved to support our life. We have evolved the ability to destroy those ecosystems. Problem? Only if you want food, water, and oxygen. Without the support of our environment we will die.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:
Since the industrialization of our society we have begun to cause irreversible damage to this system that sustains our life. We cannot destroy the earth, but we can destroy it’s ability to sustain our own lives. If we continue to destroy the environment causing our extinction, the planet will eventually regenerate – without us. So are we really saving the planet, or saving ourselves?
There are many different types of greenhouse gases – gases in the atmosphere that create or enhance the greenhouse effect on Earth. Water vapor is a major greenhouse gas, for example, as it helps to retain solar energy (heat) in our atmosphere by reflecting some back to the surface. However, when we start talking about greenhouse gases in terms of emissions we’re talking about slightly different things.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) gets all the credit, but in reality there are hundreds of gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect. We need our little greenhouse to maintain a comfortable temperature on the surface of the planet – one that sustains life. There can be too much of a good thing, though, and too much heat has already begun to cause damage to our planet.
Recently the sudden, large increase of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere has exacerbated the greenhouse effect, retaining more of this solar radiation. This has been spurred by the industrialization of the human race. Once we started unearthing ancient deposits of hydrocarbons and began burning them we have added trillions of tons of gasses into the atmosphere.
Many of these agents contribute to the greenhouse effect (hence “greenhouse gases”). CO2 contributes the most, by volume, but many people don’t realize how harmful many of these somewhat common substances are to our environment.
Global Warming Potential
This list that may expand your mind a bit. This table relates each gas by its global warming potential (GWP). For instance, CH4 (Methane) has a global warming potential of 21 because it is 21 times as powerful as a greenhouse gas as CO2 (CO2 has a GWP of 1). Obviously, this means that every pound of methane released into the atmosphere is analogous to releasing 21 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. (Download the US EPA’s “Greenhouse Gases and Global Warming Potential Values” for more information)
As you can see there are some nasty gases out there, running amok and causing drastically more to increase global warming effects, but how much of each of these is actually in our atmosphere? How much of these gases are actually emitted?
HFC and CFC are common refrigerants used usually in small quantities in our refrigerators, but also in large amounts in industrial sized refrigeration rooms. Some are even used in older fire-suppression systems. Methane is mostly produced by our livestock production, but also in industrial processes. Carbon Dioxide and Nitrous Oxide are both commonplace emissions in combustion engines, energy production, industrial processes, and many other aspects of our lives. (click on the flow chart to see the larger version)
The World Resources Institute estimates that as of 2000 77% of our greenhouse gas emissions came in the form of Carbon Dioxide, while Methane accounted for 14%, Nitrous Oxide accounted for 8%, and the remaining 1% is made up of HFC, CFCs and other miscellaneous gases.
The Point of No Return
Prior to the industrial age the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere was around 280 parts per million (ppm) plus or minus about 3%. In 1959 it was 316 ppm. The addition of 114 trillion (with a T) metric tons of CO2 pushed this number to 369 ppm in 1990, then 371 ppm in 2000.
As of May, 2009 our atmospheric level of carbon dioxide had reached 390 ppm, a number over what is considered a tipping point – when things began to change for the worse in our environment. The upper safe limit is considered to be between 300 ppm and 350 ppm, though many campaign for the lower number as the ultimate goal.
The upper limit of CO2 built up in our atmosphere before catastrophic change – the ultimate point of no return – is estimated to be around 400 ppm to 450 ppm. 450 ppm would create a world free of all ice. At this point the temperature increase on the surface of our planet will severely inhibit the ability of our ecosystem to support life. Again, this will severely inhibit the ability of our ecosystem to support life.
We’re not that far from this number. We are increasing in atmospheric CO2 of about 2.2 ppm each year and that rate is speeding up each year. We need drastic change in our emission to happen immediately.
The Change Needed Now
We can all help out, of course, by decreasing or elimentating car trips and air travel, supporting local economies and food markets, stop using plastic and petroleum-based products, and supporting progressive climate legislation. We need governmental change and I propose the following:
- Financial incentives for clean and renewable energy
- Taxation of extraction of limited resources (taxing those you pull out oil, not subsidizing the process). If done right, this could eventually lead to the elimination of things like income tax as an added bonus – that’s part of a Steady State Economic model
- Heavy taxation on polluters (power plants, refineries, factories, and, yes, your average car driver) – this money should be put exclusively towards investment in clean and renewable alternatives to all of these processes
- A legal limit on emissions. If you go over, you get fined – heavily. Corporations are only held accountable by their pocket books, so we need to make these fines larger than the profit they can from the process. Most of the wrong doing by corporations that includes fines is just inputted into their cost-benefit analysis – if they make more money than the are fine costs them, they do it anyway.
- International cooperation is needed, everyone in the world most be making some steps towards global CO2 reduction. This is not something that should be fought over, as the Bush administration did with the Kyoto Protocol. If countries are unwilling to make any steps, heavy international pressure should be placed upon them (the trade embargo on Cuba has made it a organic-food-producing, mostly oil-independent nation because they simply had no other choice).
All of these steps can be made now. In fact, the 80% reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2020, which is strongly recommended by scientist, can be accomplished with current technologies worldwide. We just need to get our act together and make it happen. This is the single most life-threatening problem in the world today and if not addressed could easily mean the end of human civilization.