This my final article on this general subject will concentrate on the world's most common element: carbon, more specifically, carbon dioxide (CO2), labeled the most dangerous of greenhouse gases responsible for potentially catastrophic global warming.
The Obama administration is embarking on its next holy crusade to save the planet from greenhouse gas, namely CO2 . The first target is the eeeevil automobile (unless it's electric). Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards will be raised from the present 28 mpg to 35 mpg by 2016 as the first major salvo against carbon emissions. Government spokespersons assure us that this will add "only" $960 to the average cost of a car. If you believe that, I'll back up the turnip truck so you can hop back on.
Cap and Tax (nee Trade) is now looming like a vulture ready to pounce on the carrion wreckage of our formerly free society. The fact that this CO2 "carbon footprint" business is a monumental scam is irrelevent in this quest for the Holy Grail of government control of our entire formerly free society. The fact is, this all has nothing to do with saving the planet. It has everything to do with power and control.
I will now begin huffing and puffing at the hurricane and address the fallacy of CO2 as the villain in this Hamletian saga. (Remember, everyone dies [well, almost everyone] at the end of Shakespeare's Hamlet.) It is not a simple subject and I have a penchant for excruciating detail, so be prepared for a long read. However, I have spent some time researching the science and am prepared to stand firmly behind all of it. "En garde, M'sieu Pussycat!"
The production of work-energy is generally understood to require heat. With the exception of nuclear energy, heat is produced by combustion--burning something. For example, your conventional automobile engine burns gasoline to create heat which expands gases to generate mechanical force to turn the wheels.
Electric automotive propulsion is not an exception. The electric motor is an energy conversion device, not a creator of energy. (Rigorously, energy cannot actually be created or destroyed, but that is a technical distinction irrelevent to this discussion.) It converts electrical energy, generated in power plants, into rotational kinetic energy. Wind, solar and hydroelectric are examples of non-combustive heat-energy creation mechanisms, but they are a relatively small part of the overall energy budget in developed countries and likely to remain so for the forseeable future.
Even the human body "burns" glucose (sugar) to produce energy to fuel muscles and other organs, including the brain, heating us up to 98.6 degrees in the process. Glucose contains carbon which is oxidized (combined with the oxygen we breathe) to produce heat-energy, the byproduct being carbon dioxide which we exhale. This process is essentially the same for all fauna.
With only a few exceptions, heat energy to do our work comes from combustion. Carbon is everywhere, the most common non-atmospheric element on earth. All combustion is oxidation--a chemical reaction of carbon combining with oxygen. The unavoidable byproduct of this process is carbon dioxide, CO2.
Oil and coal are vilified as prolific CO2 generators. But that is because they are prodigious sources of carbon and thus are efficient heat producers. This is the major reason why they are so popular as fuels. Their very efficiency has made them targets of environmentalists. This is scientifically fallacious. To compare based on weight or volume, ignoring efficiency is deliberately misleading. Let's take a look at the chemistry to try to inject some rationality into the discussion.
Gasoline is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons--chemical compounds consisting of carbon and hydrogen atoms. The main organic chemical in gasoline is Heptane, H3C(CH2)5CH3. The atoms in this molecule add up like this. Carbon: C+5C+C=7C; Hydrogen: 3H+10H+3H=16H. This format is often abbreviated to simply add up the carbon and hydrogen atoms, i.e. C7H16. From now on, I'll use this simpler notation. Gasoline also contains Iso-octane-C8H18, Cyclohexane-C6H12 and several arenes or aromatics like Benzene-C6H6 and Toluene-C7H8. I'm omitting the contaminants added in "reformulating" gas as they vary all over the map.
As you can see, there's a whole lot of carbon and hydrogen in there. When gasoline is oxidized, or burned, the major byproducts are CO2 (oxidized carbon) and water-H2O (oxidized hydrogen). Combustion in an internal combustion engine is incomplete due to the nature of the thermodynamic cycle, leaving some unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen (from the air)-based byproducts like NOx (nitrous oxides} and other air pollutants that are reduced by reformulation additives (except ethanol, to be addressed later). The unburned hydrocarbons are cleaned up by the catalytic convertor on all passenger vehicles which simply further oxidizes them. Interestingly, catalytic convertors actually increase CO2 exhaust emissions by oxidizing carbon monoxide-CO-to CO2, the evil carbon dioxide.
Well, how about ethanol? Isn't it supposed to be "cleaner burning?" By volume, that's essentially true, but the kicker is that ethanol provides less energy per unit volume than gasoline. Overall, it's pretty much a wash, except for the large amounts of energy it takes to make the stuff. (Ethanol is basically moonshine--"corn likker." Picture a still; picture the big, hot fire boiling the corn mash.) Ethanol is about 30% less efficient (i.e. poorer fuel mileage) than gasoline.
Remember the main ingredient of gasoline, Heptane, is C7H16--seven carbon atoms and 16 hydrogen atoms per molecule. Ethanol is C2H5OH, only 2 carbon atoms; less carbon = less heat = less efficiency. It does burn more completely because of the hydroxyl radical (OH) which supplies some built-in oxygen to aid in combustion. That's why the reduction in efficiency is "only" 30%. Since ethanol is about 70% as efficient an energy-producer as gas, you can expect a 25% reduction in fuel mileage with E85 fuel (85% ethanol) The current E10 blend reduces your mileage by about 3%.
Coal is a geologic mineral that does not lend itself to chemical formulae. However, soft (bituminous) coal contains about 80% carbon, 6% hydrogen, 10% oxygen and 4% trace elements. Hard (anthracite) coal contains about 90% carbon, 4% hydrogen and 3% oxygen. It is a popular fuel precisely because of its high carbon content and internal oxygen. (The percentages quoted are averages. The specific composition of coal varies widely with the region from which it is mined.
Heating Oil also evidences a wide range of formulations, but its chemical formulation typically ranges from C14H30 to C20H42. Also lots of carbon.
The point of all this is that it will be extremely difficult, costly and potentially disastrous to attempt to run a modern economy (sans horses and buggies) without hydrocarbon-based fuels. Hydrocarbons, particularly petroleum and coal, are extremely effective and efficient producers of work-energy. No other source, except perhaps for hydroelectric, is as efficient. Switching to "renewable" energy sources, while possible in the sense that given enough time and money anything is possible, would be very costly and inefficient. If we are determined to do it, we better be prepared to pay a steep price.
A final word about carbon dioxide as the greenhouse gas largely responsible for global warming/climate change. As I have mentioned often in previous articles in my Global Humbug series, it constitutes a miniscule part of our atmosphere, about 1/2500 (0.04%). While the actual percentage is never mentioned in the mainstream media, this minor atmospheric component is nevertheless portrayed as the major villain.
While CO2 concentrations have indeed increased since the Industrial Revolution and continue to do so (See chart), we are in the midst of an 11-year cool-down that global warming advocates concede is contrary to all their computer models and that they are unable to explain. What does track the temperature trend is solar activity, but that explanation is unacceptable because it would not justify government intervention and control, and global wealth redistribution. This is why the movement persists in the face of clear evidence of fraudulent science, something I can honestly say does not surprise me in the least.
The claimed major impact of such a minor greenhouse gas is explained by something called radiative forcing, whereby small changes in CO2 levels supposedly cause large changes in the effect of atmospheric water vapor which is a major greenhouse gas. There is an empirical formula which has been concocted for this effect ("empirical" means based on observations instead of scientific analysis). Here is the famous formula:
ΔF = 5.35 ln C/Co Wm-2
Where ΔF is the forcing factor, C = CO2 concentration, Co is the reference concentration and Wm is heat energy. The problem with this formula is that it has no scientific basis other than it is needed to explain the major warming effect of a minor atmospheric gas. To be fair, however, there is some observational support for a slight forcing effect on cloudy days.
It is scientifically unsupportable that CO2 is the 800-pound gorilla in the global warming room. While there has been some overall warming over the last several decades, despite the current 11-year cooling "anomaly", there is no way CO2 is responsible. Rather, solar activity, which shows a clear cyclic characteristic over eons, is a much more logical explanation.
Sorry, folks, but the science just ain't there . The "carbon footprint" is that of a gnat.