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Updated 15 November 2004

Consequences Vol. 4, No. 1, 1998








Editor's Summaries of Articles

From A Carbon Economy To A Mixed Economy: A Global Opportunity


How important are carbon--and carbon fuels--to national economies, and our own well-being? How long and how extensively have we relied on "fossil fuels" like coal and oil? Why are they so particularly singled out as sources of atmospheric CO2, when climatic projections are made? What are the costs, and possible benefits, of trimming our use of carbon fuels? Are there any truly practical replacements? What problems and pitfalls can we expect to meet in seeking ways to reduce emissions, and what can we do to minimize or avoid them?


Our national economy, like that of almost every other modern country, relies almost entirely on the use of fuels that are made of carbon, and it is this fact that sets off understandable economic alarms when calls are made, in the name of climate change, to reduce our carbon emissions. It was carbon, first in wood and later coal and oil and its derivatives, that provided all the energy that modernized the world, and we have yet to try, very seriously, any other course. Carbon fuels, moreover, are readily available and relatively cheap in terms of purchase price, and advanced nations, particularly, have much invested in carbon energy infrastructure. Nevertheless, and for reasons that seem to us compelling, the strong consensus of scientists and policy-makers around the world calls for reductions in the use of fossil fuels, through improved energy efficiency and conservation and a much greater reliance on alternative energy sources. The changes that are implied need to be weighed carefully, for they reach into all parts of our economy, and touch our personal lives. How we define and put such changes into being is the first and perhaps most critical choice, for governments and non-governmental organizations are both involved, as are multi-national corporations. The benefit of past experience in cases where science and policy have met can illuminate some of the pitfalls that we can probably expect.


Almost all we have we owe to carbon fuels, but we shall almost certainly pay a high price for our heavy past and present dependence of them, through the anticipated climatic effects of the carbon dioxide that they release to the atmosphere. The CO2 that is added, each day, remains in the air for centuries, and the burning of carbon-rich fossil fuels, for heat and transport and electric power production, has increased the carbon dioxide content of the air to the highest levels in 100,000 years. It is surely time to invest in a more diversified mix of energy sources, but if we choose and act prudently, we can turn a challenge into an economic opportunity that could improve the economic futures of both developed and undeveloped countries. With diminished dependence on fossil fuels, problems of chronic air pollution will also be addressed, particularly in urban centers where so much of future population growth is expected to take place.

Go to: From A Carbon Economy To A Mixed Economy: A Global Opportunity

The Carbon Cycle, Climate, and the Long-Term Effects of Fossil Fuel Burning


To what extent can we count on natural processes to remove some or all of the carbon dioxide that we add to the air? What are the mechanisms that in Nature take up CO2, and might they not remove much of what we add? What could we expect, were we to burn up all the carbon that is now stored as coal and oil and other fossil fuels? Is it in our best interests, economically, to reduce carbon emissions today, given that the projected climatic impacts are still in the future? What are the assumptions that most affect the answer?


The CO2 that we add to the air when fossil fuels are burned will in time be removed by the oceans and trees and the other natural repositories of the Earth's carbon cycle. How fast they absorb CO2, how much each can take in, and how long before the carbon is again released to the air are all limited, and fixed by natural processes. Trees take in CO2 and with other vegetation sequester about as much carbon as is found in the air, so that increasing the forested area of the planet would first appear as a possible way to compensate, in part, for what we add. Trees give carbon back, however, when their leaves and wood are burned or decomposed, and add to the air about as much CO2 as they take away. The carbon stored in fossil fuels--mostly as coal--is critical for future climate, for the total amount is almost seven times more than what is in the atmosphere today. Burning all of it within the next few hundred years would triple the present concentration of CO2 in the air, with truly major impacts on the climate of the Earth.


It is well known that CO2 and other greenhouse gases provide the principal thermostat that regulates the surface temperature of the Earth. We also know that in relying so heavily on fossil fuels we have inadvertently raised the atmospheric concentrations of these key gases to the highest levels of the last 100,000 years, and that what we add, each day, will linger in the air long after we are gone. The ability of the oceans and soils and vegetation to absorb more CO2 is limited, and what we know of how carbon is sequestered in natural reservoirs and exchanged among them gives little hope that Nature can fully compensate for what we have added, and will add, to the air. These facts suggest to most of the world's scientists and many policy-makers that the time has come to reduce carbon emissions. Since the major climatic impacts of what we consume of the fossil fuel reserves are not expected until far in the future, however, we must first agree on what we owe to those we may never see. For when cast in terms of optimum economic benefit, guidance from science as to how much to reduce emissions, when, and by whom, is determined principally by the ethical assumptions that are implicit in the projections of climate-economic models.

Go to: The Carbon Cycle, Climate, and the Long-Term Effects of Fossil Fuel Burning
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