Carbon: a simple element with complicated compounds

Open the newspaper, switch on your television and chances are you’ll find something on 'global warming'. According to a consensus of the majority of international climate scientists, global warming and its potentially catastrophic side effects is going to prove the biggest headache for mankind in the years ahead.

So where does carbon come into the equation. Vast quantities of carbon compounds are currently being created and released into the atmosphere through combustion. From the time of the industrial revolution onwards there has been an exponential increase in this activity.

Carbon combines with oxygen during the combustion process to form carbon dioxide (CO2). This has been identified as one of the major damaging greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases form a thin insulating layer high in the earth’s atmosphere, effectively trapping in heat from the suns rays. Global warming and climate change is the resulting phenomenon.

Under normal conditions most of the Earth’s carbon would remain sequested in a state of suspended animation so to speak. It has remained locked up in vast underground deposits in the form of coal, oil and gas. Our insatiable demand for energy, increasing population, rapid globalization and industrialisation has taken place largely at the expense of environmental destruction. Demand for fossil fuels such as oil, coal & gas is at an all time record high. Our indigenous forests are also being burnt like never before in the history of mankind.

All indicators point to a pending environmental tragedy of unimaginable proportions in years to come.

If we take New Zealand as an example of a modern nation. We appear to be no better or worse than others. Global warming knows no boundariee... it will effect all of us.

There is currently no serious discussion in New Zealand about the need to reduce energy consumption. The current focus centers around renewable energy such as wind powered turbines to make up future predicted shortfalls in energy demand. In addition to this New Zealand plans to plant trees. In my view the problem is not being taken seriously enough and the fact remains that New Zealand’s per capita production of CO2 remains recklessly high and if we are to treat the issue seriously, drastic steps will need to be taken to reduce our huge per capita carbon footprint. New Zealand and the majority of countries will act only when a global consensus is created such as a revised version of the Kyoto protocol, thereby legitimizing the difficult decisions that governments must all make in the years to come.

And while we are on the subject... we are no cleaner or greener than anyone else. It is just that we happen to live in a pristine environment called New Zealand. This came about through the coincidence that this country was virtually uninhabited 200 years ago and remains one of the most distant outposts on the planet to other centers of population. Long may it remain?

On account of damaging greenhouse gas emissions it is unlikely that New Zealand will ever build another coal fired power station. Our government is perfectly comfortable however to export well in excess of one million tonnes of high grade coal each year to other countries so they can burn it. It does tend to make you wonder sometimes.

The world’s industrialised nations are not going to allow themselves to get too excited about these increasingly shrill warnings. This is because an immediate reduction of greenhouse gas emissions will tip the world into a massive recession and spell the death knell for civilized life as we know it.

The current hope is that the leading industrialised nations can make rapid technological improvements thereby enabling reductions to take place in an orderly and profitable manner. Personally I’m somewhat skeptical of this concept - still, what are the alternatives?

At the forefront of any change will be a massive reinvestment in nuclear, wind and solar power generation. Unfortunately the nuclear option is the only large scale option on the table. All the wind and solar generation will at best only satisfy approximately 20% of current demand.

In years to come we will inevitably be faced with actually having to reduce energy consumption. Europe has already started this process by enacting legislation that will severely restrict the amount of CO2-per-kilometre-travelled that a vehicle will be allowed to emit. Under this scenario we will still be able to drive cars; it is just that they’re going to have to be very environmentally friendly versions of the vehicles that we use today. This is just the beginning of a very intensive search for a technological solution.

Keep an eye out for increasingly shrill warnings from the earth’s climate scientists, much hand wringing, big international meetings, new treaties and huge taxes on energy use.

Global warming will probably be handled in the west much like the way smoking was dealt with. You want to have a packet of cigarettes... just hand over $10.00. That’s $2.00 for the manufacturer and $8.00 for tax. It tends to dampen ones enthusiasm after a while.

Under this scheme you will probably still be able to drive your V8, its just going to cost you a bucket of money each time you turn the key.

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