Shortly before his policies in the Middle East imploded on themselves, dragging Obama into his latest, twitchy, defensive, mouse-in-a-corner foreign policy debacle, he was trying to focus our attention on climate policy. In keeping with his other recent regal edicts, he ordered the EPA to order the states to order their power companies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30% over the next 15 years. To emphasize the obviousness of this move, he snarked that anyone who opposed his policy must think the moon was made of green cheese.
Curious to know what effect this policy might really have on the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, I turned to the well known Keeling Curve. (See Figure 1.) Each day, the concentration of carbon dioxide at the summit of Mauna Loa is determined, with an accuracy of 10 parts per billion, and reported to the general public via the NOAA website.
On June 2, the day of Obama’s proclamation, the concentration was 402.15 ppm. Just now, the concentration is 397.76 ppm, or 0.039776%. In the last two months, the value has plummeted as photosynthesis in the northern hemisphere summer dominated the carbon cycle in what can only be described as the planet Earth inhaling. For as long as man has made these measurements, starting in the 1960s, there has been a pulsatile, seasonal rise and fall in the measured concentration of atmospheric CO2. This got me thinking… who is really in charge of atmospheric CO2 anyway? And how much CO2 are we talking about?
The EPA reports the total US energy-related CO2 emissions in the latest full year were 5.290 x 109 kg. If you plot the amount of US energy-related emissions for the last 15 years against the Mauna Loa data, you can see right away that there is no correlation. The r-value is -0.45, which means that as US emissions gradually declined by about 12% since 2007, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere marched steadily upward. There are at least two plausible reasons for this. Unlike the Mauna Loa data, which is a precise number measured by calibrated scientific instruments, the EPA number is, basically, a guess. No one sits atop the chimneys of power plants metering out the emitted gasses, and no one really keeps track of the fuel burned by locomotives pulling mostly coal cars but also some cement cars… you get the point. But if one concedes the point that the EPA estimate is at least in the ballpark, it is plausible that this amount of CO2 simply isn’t significant, in the grand scale of things. So let’s think about that…
In order to find the mass of the entire atmosphere, one must multiply the surface area of the Earth, 5.1 x 1014 m2 by the pressure exerted by the atmosphere at the surface (101,325 Pa (or N/m2)) divided by the force of gravity (9.81 N/kg), giving 5.27 x 1018 kg.
In order to find out how much of that is CO2, you multiply that number by the Mauna Loa percentage for the date you have in mind. Since Mauna Loa data is reported as ppmv, one must first multiply that number by 1.519 to normalize the molar mass of CO2 (44.09 g/mole) to the mean molar mass of air (28.97 g/mole). On June 2, the day Obama declared atmospheric marshal law, there was 3.219 x 1015 kg of CO2 in the air. Eight weeks later, there is 3.184 x 1015 kg, for a net reduction of 3.5 x 1013 kg. Meanwhile, US power plants were emitting 8.1 x 108 kg. That’s five orders of magnitude smaller – as in, man’s contribution to the carbon cycle is 0.001% as large as nature’s. Houston, I think we have found the problem.
There is 1,650,000 times more CO2 in the atmosphere than is generated by the US power industry in one year. Over the last 8 weeks, the net negative flux of the natural carbon cycle was 39,000 times larger than the tiny positive contribution from total US energy production. Visually explained, because the US power industry generated CO2, the large black rectangle representing all of the carbon pulled out of the air by natural forces in June and July has this little white hole in it, as illustrated below. Obama is proposing, at some cost, to make that hole 30% smaller in 15 years. I hope that any persons looking to this president for decisive actions (the Yazidis and Ukrainians come to mind) will have a look at this graphic.
Since global atmospheric CO2 concentration and US energy-related CO2 emissions have had no correlation with each other for 15 years, it can be expected that they will remain without any correlation for the next 15 years as well. Since the annual flux through the carbon cycle is so much larger than US power emissions, stating that reducing US power plant emissions 30% will reduce global warming is like stating that a boy peeing in the Mississippi river will flood New Orleans. Any true scientist can state, with conviction, that there will be no detectable impact of this EPA policy on the amount of CO2 measured in the atmosphere. Any reasonable observer could likewise state that impacts on the economy and power industry, whatever their magnitude (which may be considerable) cannot be justified by any balancing environmental benefit.
Some years ago, Mark Twain noted, “In politics, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue, and whose opinions about them are not worth a damn.”
Nice analysis, but would be curious to see same graph but with emissions expressed in PPM also and taking into account the residence time of human CO2 which is in the range of 15 years.
That’s an interesting idea…I tried it, by dispersing US Power emissions per day instantaneously into worldwide ppmv values. However, it cannot be seen against the total observed Mauna Loa ppmv value as it is 0.00001 times smaller. See the abysmal difficulty of reconstructing a global carbon budget here. goo.gl/7V4ye8. When we really do not know and cannot directly measure any of the main components of the carbon cycle, the result is like a financial audit on a company that has errors of up to 50% in all of its ledgers, and the only certain numbers are the starting and ending balance in one (atmospheric CO2) of about 20 large, important accounts.