Science to Live By: Carbon Dioxide: The Essential Pollutant (Part One)


“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” 

–Albert Einstein

© J. Dirk Nies, Ph.D.

Life on earth is based around carbon.  Why?  Carbon, to a degree not found in any other element, can bond over and over again with other carbon atoms to form stable and versatile molecular rings, chains and branches.  It is upon this carbon scaffolding the structures of the organic compounds of life are built.  Thus it is that the most fundamental biochemical reaction of life is the making of the carbon-carbon bond.

Where do green plants find carbon to make new carbon-carbon bonds, to build and replenish the molecules of life, to store away new resources of energy, to make new food?  Do they look to dark, fertile soil rich with humus, compost or other carbonaceous organic matter?  Nope.  Do they look to carbon-rich inorganic minerals such as lime (calcium carbonate)?  Not there either.  They look for and find carbon in the trace atmospheric gas, carbon dioxide (CO2).  Carbon dioxide is the originating source of carbon for life on land and in the sea.

This modest molecule possesses a lone carbon atom connected by double bonds to two surrounding atoms of oxygen (O=C=O).  The primary challenge nature faces in making organic compounds from CO2 is to coax its carbon atom to partially let go of oxygen while simultaneously grabbing hold of another carbon atom.

Nature achieves this remarkable feat using water as a reactant and sunlight to power this transformation!

Now when I mix carbon dioxide with water in the presence of sunlight, all I get is warm seltzer water that quickly goes flat.  I am awestruck with what nature achieves starting from CO2 and H2O.  The economy of life on earth is founded upon these two simple compounds.  No other substances on the planet are more intimately entwined and vital to our survival and wellbeing than they are.  From their derivatives, we obtain the food and energy we need to live and the fresh air we need to breathe.

Photosynthesis and subsequent biochemical reactions, orchestrated by a wondrous array of highly tailored molecules, interweaves and reworks CO2 and H2O into the life-sustaining biological substances, releasing breathable oxygen (O2) to the environment.  But this is only half of the story.  Through metabolism and oxidation, O2 and organic compounds are converted back again to carbon dioxide and water.

Consider fruit sugar as an example.  Fructose is made from the atoms of carbon dioxide (93 percent of its weight comes from CO2).  The remainder of fructose is made from a zest of hydrogen atoms that once were part of water.  The fall sweetness of a crisp Albemarle Pippin is a sugary manifestation of the sunlight-empowered biochemical transformations of CO2 and H2O in summer!  When I bite into the apple, I start the metabolic process of returning fructose back to the environment as carbon dioxide and water.  This is nature’s story.  This is the biosphere’s economic pattern for flourishing, continuously cycling carbon dioxide and water round and round within the web of life.

Dutch Renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus once warned: “Every definition is dangerous.”  In defining something, we can become prone to mistake the definition for its true and full nature.  So it is with deep concern that during my lifetime—through our industrial prowess and technological mindset—we have changed our definition of CO2 from an essential, natural, versatile, recyclable plant nutrient into a hazardous air pollutant.

Enacted by Congress in 1970, the Clean Air Act grants EPA regulatory authority to set air quality standards to help ensure for all Americans basic health and environmental protection.  Individual states or Indian tribes may enact stronger air pollution laws, but they may not promulgate weaker pollution limits than those set by EPA.

Among many powers, the Clean Air Act gives EPA authority to regulate hazardous air pollutants emitted by stationary sources such as chemical plants, steel mills, and fossil fuel-fired electric utility generating units (power plants).  To date, air pollution limits for power plant emissions have been established for arsenic, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates.

This regulatory landscape dramatically expanded when, on April 2, 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that greenhouse gases are air pollutants covered under the Clean Air Act.  Two years later, on December 7, 2009, EPA made an ‘endangerment finding’ under the Clean Air Act that “elevated concentrations of the six greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) – endanger both the public health and the public welfare of current and future generations.” Of these six types of greenhouse gases, CO2 is by far the most important, accounting for 82 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2012.

This past spring, EPA proposed regulating CO2 emissions from power plants.  Announcing this action in a June 2, 2014, news release, Administrator Gina McCarthy said: “Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life.  EPA is delivering on a vital piece of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan by proposing a Clean Power Plan that will cut harmful carbon pollution from our largest source – power plants.”

By altering our perception of CO2 from a vital, replenishable raw material into the image of “harmful carbon pollution,” we have transformed a beautiful and reverent work of nature’s performing art into something lifeless, harmful and profane.  We miss and distort significant aspects of its full character when we allow this definition to represent what CO2 truly is.

Prudence insists we consider the ramifications of rapidly adding CO2 to the earth’s atmosphere.  Levels of CO2 in the air we breathe have risen more than 40 percent since the dawn of the industrial age in the eighteenth century.  Too much of a good thing can be bad; and I will address this topic in future articles.  What I am saying here is that if we permit, unchallenged, our government, our academic institutions and our media to label CO2 predominately as a pollutant, we have succumbed and acceded to this industrial frame of mind.

All life on earth, including certified organic fruits and vegetables, is made of pollution from this point of view.  Plants are very tolerant with respect to carbon dioxide; its origin does not matter to them.  Whether CO2 comes from a belching diesel engine in Boise, the breath of a newborn baby in Mumbai, billowing power plant emissions in Beijing or champagne bubbles in Brussels, it’s all the same to them.

By limiting our perspective, just at the time when we need to enlarge our imaginations, we concede much ground.  Einstein’s aphorism warns us against addressing a problem with the same level of consciousness that prompted the issue to arise in the first place.  If we do, we may end up exacerbating or even creating new threats to our health, our economy and our way of life.

As an antidote, I will offer for your consideration a broader vision.  In future articles I will describe a more promising and engaging framework for success.  A vision that not only looks to technology for solutions, but one that seeks reliable patterns in nature we can emulate and promotes beauty as much as it does utility.


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