Is a net-zero-carbon atmosphere something worth pursuing?

Atmospheric carbon neutrality which is another way of putting net-zero carbon emissions within the atmospheric medium, at first blush sounds really awesome. But, is it really – all that awesome, that is?

Before attempting to answer this question one way or the other, at the very least in order here is a review of carbon/carbon dioxide fundamentals.

Carbon/carbon dioxide basics

So, to begin, carbon (C) and carbon dioxide (CO2) are two of earth’s most basic elements.

To set the stage, it is important to note that it was about 4.5 billion years ago that the earth was formed. Fast forward another two billion years and the earth’s atmosphere at that time consisted mainly of carbon dioxide gas, presumably put there from all of the presumed volcanic activity going on at the time.

As the earth cooled and settled down volcanic-activity-wise, atmospheric conditions changed and much of the atmospheric CO2 was itself supplanted by other gases, oxygen (O2) a main one among them.

Evolution here being the name of the game, coming with it were items like water and plants, the latter requiring the former along with sunlight and CO2 (through a process known as photosynthesis) to survive. Being a give-and-take arrangement, the plants retained the carbon and gave up the oxygen, the oxygen, of course, being release into and taken up by the atmosphere. What carbon dioxide did not remain in the atmosphere and what was not sequestered by vegetation and the soil beneath went into the world’s vast bodies of water, all of which is referred to as “carbon sinks.”

What’s more, over time, decaying organic matter on the surface eventually would up in the earth’s crust. As time wore on, such matter accumulated and, through a process known as “deposition,” this substance was therefore held in place. Undergoing a transformation and after the passage of much time, not only did this material mainly become carbonaceous in nature, at the same time it had also become fossilized. It is this very carbon that today is known by its more familiar moniker: “fossil fuels” – at least that which did not eventually and ultimately take the form of graphene or gone the other route and turned into diamond crystal stone.

Meanwhile, it is conceivable and plausible even that celestial bodies like asteroids that crashed into the earth throughout history brought carbon with them or that these were composed of carbon entirely.

Carbon system

Back on Feb. 27, 2019, the Air Quality Matters article “U.S. energy consumption from 1950 to 2017 and the carbon connection” was posted.

From that, there is this:

“‘Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions account for about 98% of U.S. CO2 emissions. The vast majority of CO2 emissions come from fossil fuel combustion, with smaller amounts from the non-combustion use of fossil fuels, as well as from electricity generation using geothermal energy and non-biomass waste. Other sources of CO2 emissions include industrial processes, such as cement and limestone production.’”

Only SO2 and NOx play a significant role in acid rain production

In case it isn’t exactly clear how fossil fuel carbon winds up as atmospheric CO2, remember the oxygen or O2 that’s in there? Well, the carbon that is released through fossil fuel combustion, once hitting the air forms a bond with oxygen (O2) to produce CO2, the same way that sulfur (S) when combined with oxygen (O2) forms sulfur dioxide or SO2. And the CO2 once airborne as it were doesn’t readily break down. It can remain there for tens of years.

Reaching net-zero

Many find technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and carbon removal and reuse (CRR) appealing.

But the fact of the matter is to use an idiomatic expression all that glitters is not gold. There are logistical or tactical considerations.

Logistically/tactically speaking, the CCS and CRR technologies would need to be scaled up to such a degree to make a net-zero carbon-emissions situation even possible. To achieve this end, enormous sums of money would need to be invested and it could not be done overnight; it would take some time to achieve.

Though this all may sound good in theory, to ensure that more carbon dioxide is not taken out of the air than what is introduced, how such would be regulated is the $64 million question.

And, even if net-zero carbon emissions could be achieved, the remaining pollution that would still hang in the air caused by the same fossil-fuel-burning processes gets left out of the equation, so to speak. In other words, while one greenhouse gas emission would be controlled, others as well as criteria pollutants wouldn’t, meaning, in so tackling the anthropogenically-caused CO2 problem, as long as fossil fuels continue to be burned, the fossil-fuel-prompted criteria-air-pollution dilemma won’t go away on its own. All of which could possibly have implications for the existing global warming and climate change situations in that they may get resolved (in this case meaning normalized), but as for the concomitant air pollution problem that fossil-fuel burning is also responsible for, not so much.

Framed that way and all things considered as in expended or spent capital, effort, energy and time, is a net-zero-carbon atmosphere something still worth pursuing?

Image above: NHSavage

Published by Alan Kandel

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.