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January 24th 2010 print

Tom Quirk

A simple calculation

A doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is always claimed to be where we are heading. Lord Kelvin, in 1895, calculated that so much coal was being burnt that all the free oxygen in the atmosphere would be gone in some three hundred years. This calculation caused some distress at the time.

A doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is always claimed to be where we are heading. Catastrophic climate change is said to follow. 

But are we capable of generating so much CO2 that we will take the present atmospheric concentration from 380 ppm to 760 ppm? 

Approaching this challenge in the spirit of the Club of Rome, the best sources of wisdom are the BP Statistical Review and the Energy Information Administration of the United States Department of Energy that give proven oil, gas and coal reserves. These are in their own words “generally taken to be those quantities that geological and engineering information indicates with reasonable certainty can be recovered in the future from known deposits under existing economic and operating conditions”. 

So the answer is:

If we assert following the IPCC that about half of the CO2 that results from burning the fossil fuels is captured by the oceans and the continents then we are left with 324 gigatonnes of carbon contained in the atmosphere as CO2

The present atmosphere has at a CO2 concentration of 380 ppm, some 800 gigatonnes of contained carbon. So if we were to exhaust our fossil fuel reserves we would only add another 154 ppm of CO2. This is well short of a doubling of CO2

Why are we shooting at a target we cannot reach? After all, those against nuclear power look at the proven reserves and conclude nuclear power is only a short term, fifty year interim solution to our long run demand for energy! 

Lord Kelvin, in 1895, calculated that so much coal was being burnt that all the free oxygen in the atmosphere would be gone in some three hundred years. This calculation caused some distress at the time but here we are over one hundred years later burning ten times as much coal and carbon in other forms. 

All three of these resource projections are flawed. More knowledge of our living planet has removed the concern of Lord Kelvin and no doubt further knowledge of the planet will finally remove the concerns about climate change and future sources of energy.