Spin Cycle: Carbon Dioxide Is NOT “Carbon Pollution”

The Spin Cycle is a reoccurring feature based upon just how much the latest weather or climate story, policy pronouncement, or simply poo-bah blather spins the truth. Statements are given a rating between 1-5 spin cycles, with less cycles meaning less spin. For a more in-depth description, visit the inaugural edition.

President Obama is keen on calling carbon dioxide emitted from our nation’s fossil fuel-powered energy production, “carbon pollution.” For example, last week, when introducing EPA’s Clean Power Plan—new regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions from the power plants that currently produce 67 percent of the country’s electricity—he used the term “carbon pollution” ten times. For example:

Right now, our power plants are the source of about a third of America’s carbon pollution. That’s more pollution than our cars, our airplanes and our homes generate combined. That pollution contributes to climate change, which degrades the air our kids breathe. But there have never been federal limits on the amount of carbon that power plants can dump into the air. Think about that. We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury and sulfur and arsenic in our air or our water – and we’re better off for it. But existing power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of harmful carbon pollution into the air. [emphasis added]

Clearly, he is trying to paint a picture for the American public whereby carbon dioxide emissions are thought of as dirty, noxious substances that invade the air we breathe and make us sick. Who wouldn’t support regulation to try to limit such a menace?

But, this is scientifically inaccurate and, no doubt, intentionally misleading. It reflects poorly on the president and on his scientific advisors.

First and foremost, carbon dioxide is a colorless, odorless gas that is non-toxic to humans at concentrations below some tens of thousands of parts per million (ppm). The current carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is 400 ppm and even worst case projections by the end of the century only put the concentration at 800-1000ppm. This is still some 5-6 times below the government’s recommended exposure limits. No one breathing open, well-mixed air* has ever been sickened from breathing carbon dioxide—nor ever will be.

Secondly, far from being sickened, the planet’s plant life is invigorated by carbon dioxide—the more the merrier. High concentrations (~1,000ppm) of carbon dioxide are routinely used in commercial greenhouses to produce faster growing and more robust plants. Scientific studies have shown that as carbon dioxide concentrations rise, plants become more resilient to environmental stressors, more efficient in their use of water, and more productive. A recent estimate has pegged the economic contribution of human carbon dioxide emissions to date, acting via increased crop production, at $3.2 trillion over the past 50 years and estimates an additional $10 trillion by mid-century. Pretty good for a “harmful” pollutant.

Thirdly, referring to carbon dioxide as “carbon pollution” is just plain scientifically inaccurate.

A carbon dioxide molecule is made up of two atoms of oxygen and one atom of carbon. Under the president’s apparent logic, wouldn’t it be twice as apt to term carbon dioxide “oxygen pollution”? But, we think, everyone would agree that would be deeply misinformative. So, too, everyone should agree, is applying the term “carbon pollution.”

In fact, carbon pollution already exists—it is more commonly called “soot,” the tiny elemental carbon particles that result from incomplete combustion. Soot is black, dirty, and oily, and not only makes an environmental mess, but is also dangerous to breathe. It is just what you expect a “pollutant” to be. And, it is already highly regulated by the EPA. So Obama’s statement that “existing power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of harmful carbon pollution into the air” is factually incorrect.

And finally, the carbon dioxide emitted from power plants is part and parcel of the chemistry of combustion. It is not some sort or gas or particle that is produced as a result of impurities in the fuels and can be separated from the process—it IS the process. Adding heat to hydrocarbons, such as fossil fuels (like coal, natural gas, or oil) in the presence of oxygen starts a chemical reaction that releases more heat (in excess of what was original applied) along with carbon dioxide and water (CO2, and H2O)**. Consequently, the power plants that the President refers to as being able to “dump unlimited amounts of harmful carbon pollution into the air” aren’t so much polluting as simply doing their job, the one that we ask of them—to produce the power that drives modern society and our way of life.

By calling carbon dioxide emissions “carbon pollution” President Obama and his EPA seek not to be scientifically accurate, but rather to sway public opinion in support of voluminous regulations aimed to restrict energy choice, not only here, but through his leadership aspirations, abroad (e.g., at the upcoming UN climate conference this December in Paris). For this, we award him 2.5 spin cycles—somewhere between Slightly Soiled and Normal Wash—in other words, the standard modus operandi of the federal government.

*There have been documented, although quite rare, occurrences of sudden carbon dioxide outgassing events associated with volcanic activity that have led to high fatalities in affected areas.

** In fact, it is similar to the process your body uses to power itself (in this case metabolism rather than combustion), breaking apart carbohydrates into carbon dioxide and water and liberating energy. Just as power plants emit H2O and CO2 into the air, so do you. The biggest difference, from a climate standpoint anyway, is that the carbohydrates you ingest were taken out of the air recently by plants (via photosynthesis), while the hydrocarbons ingested by power plants were taken out of the air by plants millions of years ago (and have been geologically converted and stored in the form of fossil fuels). Consequently, the collective breath of humanity does not lead to a build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere, whereas the collective breath of fossil fuel-powered electricity generating facilities does.