The benefits of CO2

“We will restore science to its rightful place”
— President Barack Obama at his inaugural address

I heard this past weekend that the EPA has classified carbon dioxide as a pollutant that is hazardous to public health, and therefor needs to be regulated. What I feel is being left out of the discussion is that this much maligned gas is plant food. I assume we all learned about the process of photosynthesis in high school biology. In our society we apparently talk a lot about being “green”, but it appears to me that the EPA’s decision is actually anti-green.

Here’s a refresher on the process of photosynthesis.

Carbon dioxide is essential for plant growth

More carbon dioxide means greater biomass in plants (more plant growth)

There are a couple interesting things to note. One is that CO2 is heavier than air, so it has a tendency to sink towards the Earth. The Greenhouse Effect takes place in the upper atmosphere. I imagine there’s a bit of CO2 up there. The amount of it in the atmosphere as a whole is minute, about 380 parts per million. Here’s a decent article on the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and what’s known about its evolution since the Earth was first formed. It’s a bit old (it said CO2 was (currently) at 360 PPM).

Secondly, the chemical equation for photosynthesis (see the 2nd link called “process of photosynthesis”) shows that an equal amount of oxygen is produced from the amount of carbon dioxide that was introduced into the process. So more CO2 at the start will eventually produce a more oxygen-rich environment.

I understand there are concerns about global warming stemming from rising CO2 levels, but this side of the science is left out of the discussion, and it shouldn’t be. CO2 has a good side as well, and what these videos show in the small is that our biosphere has a natural response to higher carbon dioxide levels. It is absorbed into the bodies of plants and more oxygen is produced. We can think of plants as our natural carbon scrubbers. More than that, more plant growth leads to more food for us and animal life.

4 thoughts on “The benefits of CO2

  1. toxicvarn90:

    Thanks for the article. It provides some balance to what I was talking about. The reason I brought it up is I know that “pollutant” is a legal term in the context of the EPA, which enables certain regulatory powers, but people have their own understanding of what “pollutant” means (ie. harmful to health, with no sense of any positive contribution a substance may have).

    I remember hearing about an incident where a scientist was testifying before an environmental committee in the Senate and a senator complained about carbon dioxide being a real problem, because what about all the people “who kill themselves by running their cars with the garage door closed.” This displayed a misunderstanding that it’s the CO (carbon monoxide) that kills people in that scenario. Of course if that didn’t do it the other exhaust gases would. It’s just a matter of what gets you first.

  2. There are many instances where an overabundance of a seemingly benign substance can be deemed pollution. Light introduced into a normally darkened environment, such as in caves, can be deemed “light pollution”, and its introduction can have significant impacts on that environment. Similarly large amounts of sound introduced into a traditionally quite environment can be deemed “noise pollution”. And so on.

    While the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is considerable, it is the rate at which industrial activities are contributing the gas that is of greater concern. CO2 fertilization and increased oceanic uptake of the gas are already in effect. Despite these counter-balances, atmospheric concentrations are continuing to rise, demonstrating the inability of these feedbacks to offset industrial activities.

    And while CO2 is heavier than air, it’s considerable atmospheric lifetime (100 years or longer) enables wind currents to mix the gas uniformly throughout the atmospheric layers both laterally and vertically, resulting in the measure of atmospheric concentration differing by as little as 10 ppm. This is why primary CO2 measurements are possible from a single location, Mauna Loa in Hawaii.

  3. Pingback: The dangerous brew of politics, religion, technology, and the good name of science « Tekkie

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