How carbon harms the atmosphere

It’s been a while since you last heard from me. Time flows by, inexorably, we can’t just stop it. What we can do is to maximise the output of the time we invest in doing all sort of things. In my case, apart from studies and other commitments, I’ve found that researching environmental issues is what I like, and here is my latest assessment of one of the most dangerous enemies of humankind: carbon.

Carbon is at the base of all living forms therefore it sounds a bit odd to name it as one of our enemies. However, when combing with two molecules of oxygen, it forms carbon dioxide (CO2), a powerful greenhouse gas.

The chemical equation of the combustion of carbon is quite straightforward to grasp:

C + O2  → CO

So when we burn something, the carbon of the material we are burning combines with 2 molecules of oxygen to form carbon dioxide. Different molecules can be produced as well, depending on what we are burning. 

The amount of carbon dioxide released during combustion can be easily calculated if we consider the atomic masses of carbon and oxygen, which are respectively 12 and 16.

The ratio of carbon and carbon dioxide produced during combustion is astonishing. We can easily calculate that burning 5kg of carbon produces approximately 18kg of CO2.

The atomic masses of carbon and oxygen are respectively 12 and 16 therefore the atomic mass of the CO2 molecule is 12 + (16*2) = 44.

We can calculate the amount of CO2 released per kilogram of carbon by dividing the respective atomic masses: 44/12 = 3,667 kg of CO2 produced per kg of carbon.

Therefore the combustion of 5kg of carbon will release 5*3.667 = 18.3kg of CO2.

So it’s easy to see that 1kg of carbon produces three times its amount of CO2 during combustion. It is estimated that coal-fired power plant (alone) produces 10Gt of CO2 per year. The amount of coal required to run them is quite high but it has been decreasing in recent years. The trend in developed countries has been to move from coal to oil and gas and now to renewables.

Would that be enough?

It would if the carbon capture of our planet will suddenly increase its rate of carbon sequestration. We have plenty of natural allies, such as trees and algae, that work tirelessly day and night to mitigate the effects of the mess we’ve made. However, the rate of deforestation, ocean acidification and dead zones are not helping, at all. 

It is funny to see how much resources and time we invest in trying to reduce the emissions from fossil fuels power plants rather than stopping deforestation, for example. Humans have always been unique in this way for me: we are the only species that choose the most comfortable way for us to deal with a problem, forgetting that such problems could be on the edge of becoming irreversible in the future.

The concept of growing the economy while reducing emissions is challenging: on one side, we want to become wealthier; on the other side, we don’t want to trash the planet. Are these goals achievable together? I think they are, at least I hope they are.

But words and blogs don’t solve problems. Imagine a scenario where, in the future, we will not be allowed to use electricity at our pleasure. Let’s say, limited power at night. Would that be acceptable for you? Because the capacity of generation of electricity from renewables is not infinite. Think about wind power. If we assume that wind patterns won’t change due to climate change and we install wind farms onshore and offshore in all the suitable location on the planet, we would have reached its limit. They will obviously generate an insane amount of electricity. But that would be enough for a finite number of us unless we decide to ration the electricity consumed per capita. And who is going to tell to people from rural Africa that now they have the power but they can’t use it as they wish because we messed up? Not me, I’ll leave that to the others. I will be long gone, as many of you will. The same concept applies to any electricity generation system. Did we really reduce the gift of life to that? After the industrial revolution, humans decided to plug themselves into engineering masterpiece, the national grids, and we never unplugged from them ever since. In the meantime, we got fatter, lazy, arrogant and most notably we lost the pleasure of life.

What are we leaving behind? A better place for many, a sadder one for me.

6 thoughts on “How carbon harms the atmosphere

    1. Hello Mark, you are absolutely right!
      We talked about the impact of methane on another post “Are ruminants evil?” published last summer.
      Permafrost thawing is another aspect that hasn’t been considered yet on this website but it’s definitely on the list!

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      1. I will give it a read and permafrost thawing is particularly interesting, especially with diseases being released back into the atmosphere, very topical given current scenarios

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        1. I see. Once I read that in countries like Russia or Alaska there are concerns about climate change: increasing temperature could compromise the permafrost on which they built on so it seems a socio-economic issue as wel as environmental.
          Thank you for the input, have a great weekend!

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          1. That’s also another issue, as well as the melting ice in the North as opened up options for territory causing concerns for countries like Canada and Russia. Enjoy your weekend as well!

            Liked by 1 person

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