Carbon Dioxide vs. Green New Deals
Recently many industrialized countries and world institutions have announced bright green new deals to tackle climate change and the environmental crisis we are facing. The US has joined the chorus by announcing a variety of proposals that go from the Green New Deal to the climate part of the Build Back Better Bill (BBB). Both continue in limbo, but I will take as reference the climate part of the BBB bill that was passed by the House on 19 November 2021. This bill allocates $555 billion to climate-related issues -mostly incentives in the form of tax credits and loans that will supposedly prompt the public to decarbonize and transition to renewable energy.
These announcements acknowledge the urgent need for climate action, so it is strange that while no climate bill has been passed yet, the approval of $768.2 billion for the Defense Budget 2022 had no problems at all. A further increase to $782 billion was speedily passed thanks to the agreement of both parties on the need to supply military aid to Ukraine.
A government that easily passes and increases bills for war spending while refusing to pass tepid bills for climate incentives is clearly showing where its priorities lie. The commitment for climate-related issues is left on paper, while the subsidies for corporations are for real (defense companies in this case). It is no wonder that the biggest lobbyists for the climate portion of the Build Back Better bill and other green new deals are multinationals. Among those, we can find some of the most destructive companies on Earth, like Nestle, the biggest user of palm oil, and IKEA, the biggest user of wood, both destroyers of mature forests. This intense interest by certain corporations reveals the real beneficiaries of the incentives in climate bills –the corporate elites expert at varnishing their image with green rhetoric, while their dirty business-as-usual continues unchallenged.
The words “clean” and “green” pepper all climate deals, as though these were magical incantations that can turn polluted into “clean” and emissions into ”green”. In their extreme cognitive dissonance, no climate plans take into account the physical and chemical systems of the Earth -it is as though our planet wasn’t bound by physical constraints, and instead responded to the mandates of a few climate experts, politicians, and world institutions.
The main concern of all green new deals is emission reduction accomplished on paper by complicated calculations to obtain what they call carbon net-zero. The idea is to allow certain emissions while compensating these with decarbonization schemes and a transition to clean energy. The calculations cancel out on paper but in the real world, these net-zero estimations will have a meaningless effect on our planet. I say this because there is such a huge gap between the true state of our planet and the measly green deals proposals, that the only possible responses are to laugh, cry, or both.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main culprit of our problem so I will try to put the decarbonization efforts of most climate plans in the context of the Earth’s systems. CO2 forms part of the oxide family, characterized by the stability of the molecules -meaning they are very difficult to decompose. Most of the CO2 tends to concentrate in the middle layer of the atmosphere, where it can remain for a long time. CO2 tends to decompose only when it is near the Earth’s surface, where it can be used by plants for photosynthesis or absorbed by the ocean. The plant world and the ocean constitute the carbon sinks that most climate experts use for their net-zero emissions calculations.
The CO2 molecules near the Earth’s surface create pressure over the ocean diffusing the gas into the water until the partial pressures across the air-water interface are in equilibrium. Our anthropogenic production of CO2 has rapidly increased its concentration, forcing the CO2 into the ocean too fast and thus unbalancing the system. The CO2 interacts with the ocean water to create carbonic acid (H2C03), a weak acid that easily breaks into hydrogen ions and bicarbonate ions. The trouble makers for the pH of the ocean are the hydrogen ions –the more hydrogen ions there are, the lower the pH, the more acidic the ocean gets, the more corals and shellfish are affected.
As we add more CO2 to the atmosphere the oceans get not only more acid but warmer too. We might like warm water for swimming and snorkeling but unfortunately, the warmer the ocean gets, the less CO2 it can absorb. According to NOAA, we currently have an ocean temperature rise of almost 1 degree above the average from 1971 to 2000, and this rise has been enough to greatly reduce the ocean’s capacity to relieve the atmosphere of excessive CO2. This means that we can no longer fully rely on that carbon sink and our emissions will increasingly join the very difficult to decompose CO2 in the middle layer of the atmosphere. This in turn will further warm the land and the ocean, enhancing this vicious cycle, until the ocean will completely stop absorbing CO2 very soon.
If the prospect of losing the ocean as a carbon sink is worrisome, the situation gets worse when we see that plants, the other carbon sink, are also in trouble. Plants have pores (stomata) that are used for gas exchange and evapotranspiration during photosynthesis. This process releases water and cools the plant and its surrounding area. Excessive CO2 stresses the plants causing the shrinkage of their pores and impairing their ability to perform photosynthesis, absorb CO2, and cool themselves. When the stress of extreme CO2 is added to deforestation, the ability of mature forests to absorb CO2 is also endangered. This is already happening even in a majestic forest like the Amazon -recent studies show that its capability to absorb CO2 is greatly diminished. If a mature and diverse forest like the Amazon is losing its ability to absorb CO2, what could we expect of the young monoculture plantations that the experts use for calculating their carbon net-zero strategy?
The stability of the CO2 molecule added to the methane emissions that leak from oil exploration, and the melting of the permafrost, mean that our emission-counting obsession and all the net-zero schemes will not bring much solace. It also means that even if we stopped all emissions now, we would still have a greenhouse gas-clogged atmosphere that will return to reasonable concentrations only after several centuries. Furthermore, even if we were able to return the atmosphere to how it was in the 19th century, the chances that we would recover the predictable climate we had are quite slim. Our fossil fuel feast has changed the Earth systems dramatically and at great speed –this is not a movie that we can rewind, and unfortunately, the ship with the benign climate sailed a while ago!
Now that we know how difficult it is to rid our atmosphere of CO2, let’s try to put the projects for decarbonization in the context of our current 37GT (a gigaton) per year emissions. These yearly emissions are joining the already CO2-clogged atmosphere that has reached about 420ppm CO2 concentrations.
In order to make a dent in the CO2 that is already in the atmosphere, we would have to not only reduce our emissions drastically but also do extensive carbon capture. Most green deals take for granted the feasibility of these proposals, so let’s test their assertions by using a hypothetical group of corporations that decide to use current carbon capture methods to eliminate just 1 of the yearly 37GT of CO2. Just a bit of calculating would inform the corporation’s CEOs of the project’s lack of feasibility— the infrastructure would require an area the size of Los Angeles if the project is powered by natural gas and an area the size of Delaware if powered by solar energy!
No tax or subsidy incentives would convince the CEOS to go ahead with such a project! But in our hypothetical carbon capture experiment, let’s now imagine that the CEOs went ahead and managed to capture 1 GT of CO2 and now they have to decide what to do next. They can either use it for enhanced oil recovery, which defeats the purpose, or they can sequester it underground. Here is the opinion of energy expert Vaclav Smil on the subject:
“Sequestering a mere 1/10 of today’s global yearly CO2 emissions (about 3.7 GT CO2) would thus call for putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by the petroleum industry whose infrastructures and capacities have been put in place in over a century of development. Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation.” (Smil 2005).
The CEOs would find this project even more unworkable, but let’s imagine that they went through with it and now they want a report on the results. They aimed to eliminate 1GT of CO2 from the atmosphere but the huge investments in money and energy ruined the corporations. The huge amount of work required for the project inevitably created more waste, increasing the pollution of water and soil, and the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In conclusion, there was not much gain, unless the CEOs’ main objective was to green-wash their corporation’s image.
As we can see, the proposals for carbon capture in the green new deals don’t seem to work as well in the real world as on paper. So let’s look now at the next climate band-aid, the replacement of fossil fuels by what they call renewable clean energy.
The first thing we should admit is that our energy needs are gargantuan and as a result, the energy-dense fossil fuels still supply 80% of our global energy. The rest (20%) is divided among nuclear energy(4%), traditional biomass (6%), and renewable energy (10%). Of that 10%, about 6% is given by hydroelectric power, while modern renewables like wind, solar and geothermal give a measly 4%. How on Earth are a few tax incentives and similar measures going to help increase the current renewable energy capacity by 80%? Impossible! The reality of stopping all fossil fuels now would entail a drastic reduction in global energy consumption, leaving us with just 20 % of what we use now!
Most people would not like to reduce their energy consumption to just 20 % of the current global average, so even those who advocate a complete and imminent ban of fossil fuels would prefer a gradual replacement instead. This sounds more convenient, and this is why most green deals prefer a gradual replacement.
So let’s imagine that thanks to any green new deal’s incentives we were able to replace 10% of the fossil fuels we use today with renewable energy in 10 years. This increase, a bit more than double of the present modern renewable energy, would imply an intense use of fossil fuels for the required infrastructure. What is the result? The pie chart above shows that fossil fuels still reign supreme and though the emissions on paper have been reduced by 10 percent, in reality, the reduction in emissions has been meaningless.
More importantly, by that time, our carbon sinks would be quite gone and the stable CO2 in the atmosphere would still be heating the Earth and causing complicated feedback mechanisms that will increasingly wreak havoc with the climate. In essence, we are not solving the problem -we are just delaying acknowledging the reality of our situation.
The strategy of counting some emissions while forgetting others is very useful to make one technology appear greener than another one. In reality, we seem to be in a bind, the more we try to solve problems the more problems we create. We are like Sisyphus, condemned to push a boulder up an incline without ever arriving at the top. Our boulder is not a rock, it is the emissions and pollution that we want to eliminate without ever managing to.
There is a very simple reason for this that few of us remember -we live in a universe that follows the laws of thermodynamics and all green new deals express this lack of awareness quite clearly. The most important law in the Universe, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, implies that the more work we do, the more we are transforming energy into a less usable type, and creating more waste. This implies that the more we do, whether building a supposedly clean wind turbine or drilling for fossil fuels, the more waste we will have in one way or another.
Just think of the copper wiring for a wind turbine. Every step requires work: from drilling the oil for powering the machines that will destroy the mountain, to the transportation and manufacturing. Each step requires energy in great quantities and leaves a trail of waste in the form of emissions and toxic slag. In the end, we have a shiny ball of copper that looks ridiculously small relative to the waste and destruction that its production entails.
This is how our universe works, we can’t avoid it! Before the industrial revolution, the work we did was powered mostly by human labor plus a few ingenious uses of wind and water. This modest energy use produced its share of equally modest waste but it was only when we found the very energy-dense fossil fuels that the 2nd Law of thermodynamics became a problem for all of us. The fast consumption of so much energy unbalanced the systems of the Earth, creating an equally fast production of waste that has been accumulating in our atmosphere, water, and soil.
By choosing to be unaware of the laws of the universe in which our planet is located, we are only delaying acknowledging a reality that is already here. For now, we can continue believing that business as usual, including unnecessary wars, can go on forever… At some point, the reality will wake us up and make us regret that we allowed experts, governments, and world institutions to distract us with optimistic but inaccurate climate calculations. We will regret that we believed the experts who dictated to us meaningless safety guidelines, while blatantly ignoring the elephant in the room that truly threatens our survival. We will also regret that we allowed these elites to divide us for petty issues of their choice, so they could continue their destructive activities with the applause of most people.
We chose to be unaware of our planet’s troubles because deep inside, we prefer to live in a rosy dream in which technology can bypass the physical laws of the universe. We don’t see that technology made our life more convenient but also created the problem. The stable CO2 in the atmosphere is the handwriting on the wall: the time for technological solutions has passed.