Fossil fuels and the carbon cycle

In all this talk of carbon taxes, dirty oil and the concern over greenhouse gasses (most notably CO2) there is the assumption that “science has proven” that man-made CO2 is bad for the environment. I’ve never bought into that, and I hope I can briefly explain a very simple reason why we should be deeply skeptical of the idea that adding carbon to the atmosphere is a “bad” thing.

Some facts

[A good friend of mine is a geologist. I ran this by him before publishing, and he confirmed the accuracy of the technical details below.]

I always prefer to begin with some facts, when possible. Planet earth is a dynamic ecosystem. In other words, stuff moves around. CO2 gets added into the atmosphere by some things (e.g., decomposing lifeforms) and removed from the atmosphere by other things (e.g., plants). The following image (courtesy of Wikipedia) gives an overview of what that looks like.

The biggest sources and sinks in this equation are plants and animals. Both plants and animals use carbon as part of their body structure (the human body is roughly 1/5 carbon), so the majority of carbon emission into the atmosphere, and removal from the atmosphere, happens through life-form growth (during life) and life-form decay (after death). Life absorbs carbon from the atmosphere while it grows and releases that carbon back into the atmosphere after it dies.

And the overwhelming majority of life – if left to the normal processes of nature – decays in such a location as to readily insert that carbon back into the cycle. Land-based plants and animals die on the face of the planet with immediate exposure to the atmosphere, and sea-based plants and animals decay in such a way that their carbon is also inserted back into the oceanic part of the cycle.

So far this is all facts. No philosophy here. No politics. No ideology.

Let’s keep going with more facts.

Oil and gas are commonly referred to as “fossil fuels” because of how it is believed that those fuels became trapped underground. Plants and animals from a distant bygone era died in such a way that their remains were abnormally trapped beneath the surface of the earth. Those remains transformed over time to become the oil and gas we find today.

In other words, fossils fuels are comprised of carbon that used to be part of the ecosystem cycle – it was the building block for many living things – but that carbon was removed from that ecosystem. Permanently. Well, at least that carbon was permanently removed until humans dug it up and started burning it. As we burn it, we release into the cycle the carbon that those long-dead living things would have inserted had their remains decomposed in a more typical manner instead of being trapped underground.

What it all means

Those are the facts, so what does it all mean? And why am I not nearly so concerned about burning fossil fuels as so many other people are?

The fact that fossil fuels are derived from plant and animal life that used to be part of the ecosystem means that the ecosystem used to have more carbon, overall, than it currently does. If we could rewind the tape far enough into the past, there would have been a time when no fossils fuels were buried underground because life hadn’t been around long enough for that to happen. All the carbon currently buried as fossil fuels used to live, as plants and animals, on the surface of the planet. Given this fact, in the distant past there was as much carbon in the ecosystem as there currently is, plus all the carbon contained in the fossil fuels that are currently buried beneath the surface of the earth.

It appears to be the case that our current carbon levels are a lot lower than they used to be, as the following chart shows (from this website).

It would seem the CO2 levels in the atmosphere used to be up to 20 times higher than they are today. And at no point in history were the carbon levels significantly lower than they are today. Visit the link for a more thorough description of the chart.

In short, there was a time when the earth’s ecosystem had a significantly higher total carbon “budget” than it currently has. But if the environmentalists are to be believed, a carbon level any higher than the current level spells doom. Oceans rising. Mass extinction. Disaster. Death. Think “The Day after Tomorrow.”

So that should lead us to consider how healthy the earth’s ecosystem was “back in the day.” After all, if the total carbon contained in the ecosystem was significantly higher than it is today, did the earth experience runaway temperatures? Did life die out? Were there some catastrophic consequences to having all that dangerous “excess” carbon floating about?

Apparently not. Life seems to have flourished just fine back then. In fact, we know that life flourished with much higher carbon levels because a lot of that life eventually became the fossil fuels that we utilize today.

A different perspective

We are frequently told that it is bad for humans to introduce carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. The message, implicitly, is that earth currently has the “right” amount of carbon, and any more carbon would be “too much.” But if geological history is to be believed, life has been surviving just fine with our current levels of carbon (otherwise we wouldn’t be here), and life also survived just fine in the distant past when the carbon levels were significantly higher than they currently are (otherwise we wouldn’t have fossil fuels).

A better perspective on the whole issue is this: there is a total amount of carbon on planet earth and it doesn’t seem to matter whether a bunch of it is buried underground or not. Burning fossil fuels is functionally equivalent to bringing carbon that used to be part of the ecosystem back into the system once again. If all that carbon wasn’t a problem back in the day then it isn’t likely to be a problem today either.

Now I’m not suggesting we all go out and buy Hummers so we can do donuts in the parking lot all day. I am fully supportive of increasing our energy efficiency and reducing our use of non-renewable resources. I support solar panels. I love wind turbines; in fact I have an invention idea bouncing around in my head for a different kind of wind turbine. But maybe we can finally get over this guilt trip about adding carbon to the ecosystem while we go about our lives.

Carbon is not bad; carbon is the building block of life. A human saying that carbon is bad is like a Lego man condemning plastic.

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