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The Carbon Dioxide Conundrum
[Commentary] We owe more to the subtleties of this gas than most people realize
Nicolas van der Leek (Nick)     Print Article 
Published 2008-07-23 17:19 (KST)   
All life is literally made out of thin air. The tissues of human beings (corneas, fingernails, eyelashes and skin) are sophisticated cellular arrangements based on reconfigurations of the surrounding atmosphere.

Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe and the second most common element after oxygen in all life forms. Ninety-six percent of the human body is liquefied or dissolved gas, separated into just four elements, including nitrogen (3 percent), hydrogen (10 percent) and oxygen (65 percent). The fourth element, carbon, perhaps the most amazing of all, is the basis for life as we know it in this corner of the universe -- 18 percent, or about a fifth, of the human body is based on it.

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Carbon Based Life

The various arrangements of these elements render the various chemicals, proteins, enzymes and tissues. The blood in human beings is bright red, which is darker when it carries carbon dioxide. On the other hand, carbon monoxide (the principle waste product of automobiles) causes blood to turn bright red and is poisonous to humans and, when not fatal, permanently damaging to cellular tissues. Carbon monoxide (CO) is produced when organic matter burns in situations of constrained oxygen supply, preventing complete oxidation to carbon dioxide (CO2).

Carbon is such a vital element for life because of its allotropic nature: different chemical bonds mean it can take many different forms, from the hardest known natural substance -- cubic crystallized diamonds (which are transparent) -- to soft hexagonal graphites (which are black), to the constituents of chewing gum or plant cellulose. When viewed under a microscope carbon can resemble up to eight different crystal allotropes.

In our bodies, carbon exists in various forms, but many may be surprised to know that in the same way that carbon-based fossil fuels run car engines, it is also -- even in a fairly simple form -- an energy source for human beings. Lactic acid (C3H6O3) is a vital fuel involved in at least two of the energy systems we use for physical performance. Lactate produced in one muscle is used as a source of energy in other muscles.

Let There Be Light

But it is thanks to plants, algae and fungi that higher orders of life can even exist, because these assimilate carbon out of "thin air," using sunlight in a primary (light dependent) process to create molecules that are further altered in a secondary (light independent) process into substances that are the basis for starches, sugars and other tissue compounds.

The equation can be represented as follows:

carbon dioxide + water + light energy 넂 glucose + oxygen + water

The critical point though is this: the rate of photosynthesis is reliant on the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air, the ambient temperature and the light intensity.

The Breathing Earth

Since 1800, carbon dioxide parts per million have increased 36 percent, to 387 ppm by volume in the Earth's atmosphere, and half of that increase occurred in the last 30 years. It is expected that this increase will continue to accelerate for many years to come based on current human activities.

Many people argue that since less than 1 percent of the Earth's atmosphere is carbon dioxide, any change in the levels of this compound is insignificant anyway. This may seem like a logical point, except that unlike 99 percent of Earth's constituent gases (nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen), CO2 (along with water vapor) transmits visible light but absorbs both near infrared and infrared light.

This means that CO2 can potentially affect large temperature fluctuations on Earth, and of course, that is exactly what is happening. Remember that equation: the rate of photosynthesis is reliant on the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air, the ambient temperature and the light intensity. Numerous studies present such a close correlation between temperature and CO2 that when superimposed the graphs are almost identical. Given that CO2 levels are currently a third higher than human beings have ever experienced, it is not inconceivable that temperatures will increase by a third on average, devastating the ability of the light sensitive organisms (and probably all life on Earth) to function effectively.

The Carbon Sink Caveat

The caveat to this is the carbon sink. It is true that while massive amounts of carbon are pumped into the atmosphere each day, only about half these amounts are measured in the atmosphere. This means that the natural world (the sea, forests, algae, etc.) are absorbing what is patently a very nourishing addition. But even though half these amounts are being absorbed, a massive injection that is not remains, and these amounts worryingly continue to increase. And just because the natural world until now has been trapping these free carbon stores during what is in essence a stable temperature phase does not mean they could not be released in a sudden pulse, a tipping point event, when climate conditions are set off by feedback loops (like melting ice caps) which are apparently underway already.

Isn't This Natural?

The world's volcanoes inject around 150-250 million tons of CO2 into the Earth's atmosphere per annum. To put into perspective the impact of human activity, 2.2 billion metric tons of CO2 went into the atmosphere by US electric energy generation in 1999. China's atmospheric pollution is even worse, with an estimated three quarters of a million (750 000) premature deaths in China blamed on extremely poor air and water quality. The country released about 22.5 million tons of sulfur in 2004, twice the US rate. In 2002, the Chinese government pledged to cut sulfur emissions by 10 percent in three years; instead, they rose by about a third. China also leads the world in its mercury emissions, thanks to its chronic use of coal-powered plants.

Who Are the Culprits?

The top three CO2 emitting culprits produce 55 percent of the total CO2 for the planet. They are:

1. USA: six billion tons (22 percent of world total).
2. China and Taiwan: five billion tons (18 percent of world total).
3. EU: four billion tons (just below 15 percent).

South Korea is ninth in the world, and South Africa 12th, with very high levels for countries with relatively few people (under 50 million each).

The total CO2 pumped into the atmosphere by all countries is currently 27.23 billion tons.

Anyone who seriously believes that these extraordinarily high levels of pollution will not have a devastating and catastrophic impact on living systems on Earth need to check in immediately to the nearest asylum.

more CO2 = hotter, dryer/more chaotic weather = fire/floods = fewer forests = more CO2 = hotter, dryer

While forests and other organisms that rely on photosynthesis for homeostasis do benefit under some circumstances from higher CO2 levels, it is important to remember that significant increases in CO2 levels also significantly increase temperatures -- a correlation that is very consistent. Higher temperatures may extend the dry seasons for forests, improving conditions for both fires and for those forests to diminish into ordinary savannah or bush veldt. It is not difficult to appreciate that the threat of fire has increased significantly recently around the world, as warming has increased. Right now, California fires still rage, going on to break recent records yet again. The other obvious impact is very powerful and damaging weather systems, including hurricanes. These are also currently operational in the Gulf of Mexico.

Climate Campaign Now

A massive international campaign needs to be introduced by governments to address ordinary motoring habits and national power production (particularly by coal) immediately. Countries might elect to sponsor China with nuclear powered plants in exchange for fishing rods, plastic toilet seats, etc. Failure to do so may have dire consequences. Communities need to take to the streets if appropriate measures are not set in motion soon and as a matter of urgency.

We should not forget that carbon dioxide makes up approximately 95.7 percent of the atmosphere on Mars. While photosynthesis in the future does not necessarily have to be based on carbon dioxide (early photosynthetic systems such as green and purple sulfur bacteria used sulfur and hydrogen), it is probably the best alternative for human beings who wish to continue with reasonably orderly homeostasis. How well do you tolerate sulfuric acid rain? We need to make the most of our One Earth. We have one life, on one home, on one Earth, and we have right now to start, so let us start tackling the CO2 conundrum.
For more on the writer, visit www.nickvanderleek.com.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Nicolas van der Leek

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