After the Copenhagen Conference: Carbon Is Not the Planet's Greatest Threat

By Skene, Keith | Contemporary Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

After the Copenhagen Conference: Carbon Is Not the Planet's Greatest Threat


Skene, Keith, Contemporary Review


CARBON footprints, greenhouse gases, carbon trading and global warming currently dominate the media and political arenas, with the Copenhagen Climate Conference in early December taking centre stage for a human population that is concerned for its future. Representatives from one hundred and ninety-two nations gathered and attempted to reach an agreement on a plan of action. The discussions were imbued with the full spectrum of human character: pride, passion, fear, greed, political manoeuvring and suspicion. Following a last-ditch effort by a small subset of these nations, a document was produced on the final morning which recognized global warming as a problem, and which expressed the need to keep temperatures from rising too high--not exactly original, provocative nor legally binding.

The spectre of rising oceans, melting ice-caps and dramatic changes in rainfall patterns has been vividly set before us in recent times. The climate is changing, it's all to do with carbon dioxide, and we need to act now to reduce emissions. It all seems straight-forward enough, although the political and socio-economic consequences are anything but simple, as can be seen by the varying messages coming from governments across the globe.

While the implications of the rise in atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide are debated, the rise itself is generally accepted. Investigation into the cause of the rise points to humans. By using coal, oil, and products derived from them, we release carbon dioxide. These deposits were originally plants that converted the sun's energy into sugars, absorbing [CO.sub.2] from the ancient atmosphere. The process is simple:

Sunlight + [CO.sub.2] + water [right arrow] coal [right arrow] energy + [CO.sub.2] + water

The energy and the [CO.sub.2] are like a young pair of lovers, inseparable! We can't have one without the other. So we burn these fossil fuels, which re-release the energy and the carbon dioxide trapped many millions of years ago. The carbon was stored under the ground and below the oceans, and now is returning to where it came from. However we are not burning coal in some magnanimous attempt to liberate the carbon after its long incarceration within the crust of the planet. What we want is the energy. And this brings us to the crux of the matter.

The biggest threat to the planet is the energy itself. It is not the colour of the energy per se. For example, the increasing market for green fuels has devastated the island of Borneo, with vast tracks of land cleared in order to develop oil palm plantations. This has had significant impacts on the already threatened indigenous species, including the orangutan, the Sunda clouded leopard and the flat-headed cat. It is the energy that we directly use for survival that is the key to the planet's future. Fundamentally, the greatest crisis facing the human race is the result of one thing, our need for chemical energy to maintain us. Almost seven billion mouths cry out, like Audrey II in The Little Shop of Horrors, 'Feed me!' It doesn't really matter what other energy efficiency measures we make, it is the food production that threatens the Biosphere. In order to allow the growth of the global human population to continue, we need more and more energy.

Robert Malthus, who in 1798 published, originally anonymously, his magnum opus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, realised that as the human population increased geometrically, their demand for resources would outstrip supply, visiting great misery and hardship upon us all. Every population has a carrying capacity (literally the population capacity that can be carried by a given habitat), beyond which the demands placed upon resources prevent further growth. The only way to increase this carrying capacity is to increase the flow of energy through the system. It has been estimated that if humans were still hunter-gatherers, reliant on what resources they came across in a nomadic existence, the carrying capacity of the planet would be around 100 million people. …

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