Why is there a Carbon Dioxide Problem?

4 July 2012

Why is there a Carbon Dioxide Problem?

carbon dioxideBy Noel McArdle

Throughout the World, countries and national governments are becoming aware of the dangers of Climate Change due to the increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.

The current level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is 395 parts per million (ppm).   CO2 has been significantly higher in the very distant past (300 million years ago) and has been as high as 1,500 ppm at that time.  So why are we worried about a modest level of 395 ppm?

The original high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere were due to natural causes such as volcano emissions.  Then, on the land, trees began to gradually absorb the carbon dioxide and give out oxygen.  In the shallow seas, the plankton did a similar job.  As the eons went by and innumerable generations of the original species died, the plankton in the shallow seas eventually became oil deposits and the layers of dead trees turned into coal.  By the time of the Industrial Revolution in 1780, the levels of atmospheric CO2 had fallen to 280 ppm.

Since the Industrial Revolution we have consumed both the oil and the coal and, in so doing, have released the stored carbon back into the atmosphere.  Hence the CO2 levels have started to rise again.  We have now increased atmospheric CO2 by over 100 ppm since pre industrial times.  Five to ten years ago, it was hoped by governments around the world, that we could stabilise atmospheric CO2 levels at 400 ppm.  It is now generally agreed that the 400ppm target is no longer possible.  The new target is 450 ppm if we are to limit average global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius.  Although this does not seem to be a significant increase, it can be viewed in perspective if we consider that a 20c rise in temperatures will mean we would no longer be able to grow cereal on the Eyre Peninsula.

Another way of looking at the 450 ppm target is from the viewpoint of rising sea levels.  About 5 years ago, scientists dug core samples down to the bed rock in Antarctica to sample the atmosphere locked up in the ancient ice resting upon the original rock base.  These samples showed that the CO2 in the atmosphere was approximately 450 ppm when the earth became sufficiently cool for Antarctica to freeze over.

In other wordsclimate change, if mankind does not achieve the new CO2 target of 450 ppm, we will be right on the tipping point of when Antarctica froze over.  Much beyond this and all of the glacial and land ice will melt.  Sea rises won’t be in the region of ½ metre – but will be more like 6 metres.  Considerable coastal land will be lost.

These are the underlying reasons why governments and politicians are trying to find a solution to the carbon problem.


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