Greenhouse gas situation may not be as bleak as you think

Russ Kratowicz gets to the bottom of carbon's role in the global warming debate.

By Russ Kratowicz, P.E., CMRP, Executive Editor

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We need to get past the debate about whether the observed increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases can be attributed to anthropomorphic causes. Regardless of source, laboratories around the world are able to measure those increases with parts-per-trillion precision. Then, we’ve got to get past jawing about the validity of any correlation between the increases in greenhouse gas concentrations and rising temperatures. There’s just too much rhetoric surrounding these issues. Sometimes it all sounds like the crew arguing about who poked the hole in the hull while the sinking boat takes everyone to pay a visit to Davy Jones.

No argument matters nearly as much as the way you’re going to cope with the hand you’ve been dealt. OK, so what? Things are getting warmer. Crank up the air conditioner, which requires more electricity, which requires burning more coal, which results in more atmospheric carbon dioxide, which might be jacking up the warming, which requires more air-conditioning. And around and around we go. Maybe that’s not the best way to cope.

In the interest of broadened intellectual horizons, this month we get our hands dirty searching for carbonaceous stuff in that morass we call the Web. Take advantage of the practical, zero-cost, noncommercial, registration-free resources we’ve uncovered. You’ll sound like an expert. Remember, we search the Web so you don't have to.

The public encyclopedia

The greenhouse gas situation might not be as bleak as some people would have you believe. This good news comes from a generally reliable source. Did you know that the United States ranked only 10th in the world based on per-capita carbon dioxide emissions between 1990 and 2004? Also, the United States ranked 14th in per-capita greenhouse gas emissions in 2000. So says Wikipedia, the online authority on so many obscure facts and figures. Where else would you learn that the size of your personal carbon footprint is a function of your age? Spend a few moments to research the concept of carbon footprint at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_footprint, a topic to which we’ll return shortly.

Trees versus electrons

Getting this magazine to your desk requires the hewing of perfectly good trees, processing them, printing the words and pictures, and burning hydrocarbons to truck them to the nearest post office. No doubt, that chain of events involves the release of lots of greenhouse gases. Maybe you decide you’re going to get your news and information via the good old Internet. That’s more eco-friendly. Says who?

Certainly not Martin Stabe, a U.K.-based blogger. One of his essays points out that the massive, worldwide computer system needed to connect your screen to some location out there in the void on the world’s largest disk drive requires a surprising number of gigawatts. Several other amazing large-scale tidbits of information await the curious maintenance professional who ventures to www.martinstabe.com/blog/2006/12/09 and scrolls down to “What is the media’s carbon footprint, in print and online?” If you go there, follow some of the links in the story.

How much carbon is that?

Last month, I mentioned the Virgin Earth Challenge and its $25 million prize for the first person who can produce a worldwide net removal of manmade atmospheric greenhouse gases each year for at least 10 years without any negative unintended consequences (you can read about it at www.plantservices.com/articles/2007/227.html). Then, somewhere I read that the best answer to this global warming issue is to stop taking carbon out of the ground and putting it into the air. That image got me thinking about just how much carbon is involved. So, I dropped in at www.eredux.com/states/index.php, a site of unknown parentage that purports to have an accurate tabulation of carbon footprints for each of the 50 states. For example, the site ranks Illinois, with its 230 million tons of carbon output, as fifth in population, 30th in per-capita carbon output and 7th in total carbon output.

A simple tally of the state-by-state totals says the country is putting out 5.799 billion tons of carbon each year. The site is ambiguous, however, about whether this refers to elemental carbon or carbon dioxide equivalents. Let’s assume it refers to the elemental form. The bulk density of carbon (as graphite) is 2.267 g/cm3. Do the math and you’ll see that 1 million tons of elemental carbon is equivalent to nearly 524,000 cubic yards of the stuff. That’s a cube more than 240 ft. on a side. But, that represents only 1 million tons. We’re talking nearly 5,800 times as much. Now, we have a cube 4,344 ft. on a side. And that’s only in one year, in only one country. As an aside, if the Web site is talking in terms of CO2 equivalents, then the 4,344 figure drops to 1,186 ft. on a side. Anyway, it’s starting to seem like a lot of work for a measly $25 million.

Bigger bang for the buck

When it comes to having the power to destroy the world as we know it, carbon dioxide actually is small potatoes. It’s only one of a list of compounds that are lumped together as greenhouse gases. Some of those other chemicals persist in the atmosphere for eons, all the while exerting a greenhouse effect thousands of times greater than that of the puny ol’ CO2 molecule.

For example, tetrafluoromethane and sulfur hexafluoride are big baddies in the world of nasty gas, according to “Reducing your carbon footprint? Think fluorine first,” an article by Sébastien Raoux, Ph.D., president and CEO of Transcarbon International Corp., San Francisco. He argues that, regardless of how important and useful fluorocarbons are, we’re better served by minimizing their use in our plants and selecting only suppliers whose production processes use as little of these chemicals as possible. Raoux also talks about the potentially bizarre economics of the market for fluorocarbon emission trading. Take a read at www.cmsforum.org/Fluorocarbon_Article_SRaoux_CSP.pdf for the details.

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