The acidity of the world’s oceans has since the Industrial Revolution increased by 30 percent, according to the U.S. National Atmospheric and Ocean Administration (NOAA). This is because the Industrial Revolution introduced machine power to human civilization; and machines multiplied, as Adam Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations, the remarkable and decisive effects of the division of labour, which had itself made the difference between the advanced and wealthy societies of western Europe and those practically everywhere else.
Most machines at the time, and a big proportion ever since, were powered with fossil fuels, first mainly coal then oil and gas. When burned, these fuels release carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas that when it is absorbed in water reacts chemically with water and turns it more acidic.
So far today, Ontario electricity generators have put more than 9,400 metric tons of CO2 into the air (see Table 2 in the left-hand sidebar). I don’t like that. CO2 is a tough, stable molecule. It absorbs into seawater within 200 and 2000 years. What does not absorb into seawater lasts literally thousands of years further in the atmosphere. Who knows how long it lasts after it has absorbed into seawater. I would rather that Ontario power plants put zero CO2 into the air.
While the rise in global CO2 emissions from fossil-fueled machines has been attributed to the Industrial Revolution, the real skyrocketing in emissions began during the post-Second World War economic boom. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions estimates that global emissions had risen to 35 billion metric tons in 2010; they had been just over 5 billion tons in the hundred years from 1850 to 1950.
You could therefore credibly attribute the 30 percent increase in the acidity in the world’s oceans to the proliferation of fossil-fueled machines from about 1950 to today. That proliferation increased CO2 seven-fold.
It is interesting to note, since I had mentioned Adam Smith off the top, that world gross domestic product also increased about seven-fold from 1950 to roughly today. This suggests a relationship between economic prosperity and CO2, and has led to popular terms like emission intensity of economic output.
But this relationship is not automatic. It is possible to increase economic output, and a society’s prosperity and quality of life, without an increase in CO2. France, for example, had a per capita GDP in 2010 of US$34,894 (according to the OECD). France’s annual per capita CO2 emissions were 5.5 tons in 2010 (see International Energy Agency “CO2 emissions from fuel combustion,” p. 102).
Germany, next door to France, had a slightly higher GDP: US$38,320. Per capita CO2 however was 9.3 tons.
So Germany, with a per capita GDP only 9 percent higher than that of France, had per capita CO2 emissions 69 percent higher.
Why such a difference in CO2 emissions between Germany and France? In all but one of the major CO2-emitting sectors—and these include electricity and heat generation, manufacturing and construction, and transportation—France and Germany are nearly identical. The difference is in how they make electricity. France makes it almost entirely with nuclear energy. Germany burns fossil fuels. Each German’s CO2 footprint from electricity use is nearly five times that of each Frenchman.
The metric of carbon intensity of economic production is actually simply useless in the comparison between Germany and France. Adding some tax to somehow discourage use of carbonaceous fuels in making society economically efficient and productive tells the taxpayer nothing about the sources of CO2 in his or her activity. You want to lower per capita CO2 emissions? Switch to zero-CO2 fuel in doing the work that makes you efficient and productive.
France has done that. Germany refuses to. France’s per capita CO2 is far lower than Germany’s. It is as simple as that.
Now, we often hear, in the context of the nebulously defined term Sustainable Development, admonitions to “think globally, act locally.” I am in Ontario, Canada, a landlocked jurisdiction. I don’t like hearing that activity in my neck of the woods might affect sea life off the west coast of North America, thousands of kilometers away. I do not want my personal CO2 footprint anywhere near that of a German citizen; that would be not just embarrassing but irresponsible. I do not want to be responsible for dumping CO2 into the air so it can make the oceans more acidic.
So what can I, and my fellow Ontarians do? Well, we can do what we can to reduce the amount of CO2 our electricity system puts into the global atmosphere. So far today, Ontario electricity generators have put more than 9,400 metric tons of CO2 into the air (see Table 2 in the left-hand sidebar). I don’t like that. CO2 is a tough, stable molecule. It absorbs into seawater within 200 and 2000 years. What does not absorb into seawater lasts literally thousands of years further in the atmosphere. Who knows how long it lasts after it has absorbed into seawater. I would rather that Ontario power plants put zero CO2 into the air.
And it could be zero, if we made more of our electricity using nuclear reactors. As you can see in Table 2, nuclear comes with zero CO2 emissions.
Most of the 9,400 tons of CO2 from Ontario electricity generation so far today came from generators that burn natural gas.