Greenhouse gas situation may not be as bleak as you think

Jan. 4, 2008
Russ Kratowicz gets to the bottom of carbon's role in the global warming debate.

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, 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 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 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, 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 for the details.

Bad water

Fully three-quarters of this third rock from the sun is covered with water. Warmer water evaporates faster than cooler water. The environment is getting warmer. The confluence of those three tidbits bodes ill for this business of global warming. The reason is that water vapor, in the absence of those other nasty atmospheric chemicals, is itself a kind of beneficial greenhouse gas.

Unfortunately, those beautiful clouds are now making things worse, according to a story brought to you by National Public Radio. If you want to read about the world’s original greenhouse gas, pledge your mouse at and plug the number 15662891 into search function at the top center. This returns a link to the article in question. In fact, you don’t even need to know how to read because you can listen to the audio clip that was broadcast on Oct. 29, 2007.

Space hogs

The world is an interactive place. Creature A makes a move, creature B must respond. It’s that free will thing we’ve all heard about. So, we go about our lives engaging in our individual lifestyles. As fun as your resulting standard of living might be, it’s somewhat removed from the land and water resources that make it possible. Those resources are what constitute your personal ecological footprint. It seems to me that the world might even be a zero-sum game when it comes to the environment.

If your standard of living requires no more than your pro rata share of the total possible resources, you’re a good world citizen. But, what with the world’s exponential population growth, your fair share is actually appallingly small. To get a sense of how small, drop in at, click on “Ecological Footprint,” pick your country and language, and answer 15 lifestyle questions. The Earth Day Network, Seattle, then informs you of the implications of having everyone on earth enjoy a lifestyle identical to your own. It’s an eye-opener. Just for grins, take the test again with the intent of minimizing your share. It’s harder than you think.

The corporate tally

So, the equity markets will soon be asking how much greenhouse gas can be attributed to your day-to-day plant operations. Obviously, the answer isn’t going to come off the top of your head, nor is it easy to formulate, nor is it as low as you think. But the answer can be determined objectively if you’re diligent and have kept appropriate records. For guidance, I’d direct you to the Greenhouse Gas Protocol for a pair of helpful standards. The one called “Corporate Accounting and Reporting Standards” uses 148 pages to show you how to quantify your plant emissions. The standard called “Project Accounting Protocol and Guidelines” is a 116-page, policy-neutral tool for quantifying the benefits to the climate that result from your capital projects designed to reduce greenhouse gas output.

Both are published as a joint venture by two organizations. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) is a coalition of 200 international companies from more than 35 countries and 20 major industrial sectors, all of whom share a commitment to sustainable development through economic growth, ecological balance and social progress.

The World Resources Institute is an independent nonprofit organization of more than 100 scientists, economists, policy experts, business analysts, statistical analysts, mapmakers and communicators working to move human society to live in ways that protect Earth’s environment and its capacity to provide for the needs and aspirations of current and future generations. With so much intellectual horsepower behind this initiative, you’d be negligent and come off as downright uninformed if you didn’t at least download and read the standards. Both are available at

Buy your way out

No doubt, you’ve heard the term “carbon offset” thrown around quite a bit lately. The underlying concept is that you reduce, to the maximum extent possible, the direct and indirect carbon releases that support your lifestyle. There comes a point, however, beyond which further reduction is either impossible to achieve or produces a material degradation in quality of life. Nobody voluntarily lives in a cardboard box or unheated cave, eating nothing but raw stuff scrounged from the environs. That baseline carbon release is your responsibility, and a possible way to eliminate any resultant guilt trip is to buy your way out of it. This is a capitalistic economic system, after all.

Before you get all gung ho with your PayPal account, you should read the caveats offered by the National Insulation Association, Alexandria, Va., at Enter the phrase “carbon offsets” in the Title/Intro Keyword search box found under the Quick Searches option. This returns an article titled “Carbon Offsets: The Next Hot Trend in Energy Savings.”

With that warning, you can then pay a visit to for a list of some 17 Web sites that have online calculators for calculating your footprint. One such site selected at random is the Foundation, based in Silver Spring, Md., at It appears that this nonprofit organization would be able to pass muster with respect to the NIA caveats. From here, however, you’ll need to explore your options on your own.

A bad trade

Rising Tide UK is a London-based network of folks dedicated to building a movement against climate change. They might have an obvious bias, but they also have an interesting perspective on the concept of carbon trading. One of the group’s arguments is that planting trees on an industrial scale won’t work in the long run. The effort is a one-shot deal at best. One can’t keep marketing the same trees each year. So, if you’re cynical by nature, this is the site for you. Click your way over to for your own copy of “Carbon trading is contrary to social justice.” Be careful if your plant gets into the trading game.

Without comment

E-mail Executive Editor Russ Kratowicz, P.E., CMRP, at [email protected].

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