After all, the Earth is a planet. Is even the presence of humans significant on the rough and diverse thin surface of this planet?
We certainly make every effort to see ourselves as significant on this spinning ball in space. We like to point out that the lights from our cities can be seen from our extra-atmospheric “spaceships” at night and that we have deforested continents and reduced the populations of large wild mammals and of fishes but is all this really significant in the planetary web known as the biosphere?
INSIGNIFICANCE OF FOSSIL FUEL BURNING ENERGY RELEASE
The present (2010) historic maximum of anthropogenic (caused by humans) fossil fuel burning is only 8% or so of global primary production (GPP) (both expressed as kilograms of carbon per year, kg-C/y). GPP is the rate at which new biomass (living matter) is produced on the whole planet. And of course all biomass can in principle be considered fuel that could be burned with oxygen (O2) to produce CO2 gas, H2O water, energy, and an ash residue.
This shows the extent to which anthropogenic energy production from fossil fuel burning is small in comparison to the sun’s energy delivery to Earth, since biomass primary production results from the sun’s energy via photosynthesis.
The sun’s rate of raw energy delivery to the planet is, in turn, much greater (more than one thousand times greater) than the energy captured by GPP because most of the sun’s light energy is not used for photosynthesis but instead is either sent directly back out into space or produces fluid convection, wind, rain, water currents, erosion, etc., and because photosynthesis itself, even for the light directly striking a plant’s photoactive surface, is highly inefficient (less than 2% of incident light energy is converted to biomass chemical bond energy).
So, on the global scale of things fossil fuel burning energy release is miniscule (8% of 0.07% = 0.006%).
Given all the fuss that is made about the present rate of fossil fuel burning (2010; 0.8 x 10^13 kg-C/y where 10^13 = 10,000,000,000,000 with thirteen zeros), it is important to keep in mind that this represents an amount of CO2 release comparable to or somewhat less than the CO2 released by simple breathing from humankind and its domestic animals. The combined biomass of humankind and its domestic animals (cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, pigs, pets, etc.) is in turn estimated to be only 0.04% of Earth’s living biomass (all expressed as kilograms of carbon, kg-C), which is a lot more CO2-producing breathing. (Ants, for example, are estimated to represent ten to one hundred times the biomass of humankind and ants can be argued to have “transformed” the planet and its ecology far more than humans.)
The corporate-finance-military-empire interest in fossil fuel is that it is concentrated, extractable and compositionally homogeneous enough to be amenable to industrial processing, that its demand can be created and its supply controlled, and that new and existing alternative transportation technologies or strategies can be sabotaged and are not presently competitive on the geopolitical military battlefront (although hydrogen-based fuels are presently used for rocket propulsion).
INSIGNIFICANCE OF FOSSIL FUEL AS A CARBON POOL
The total pool of fossil fuel carbon itself, which has been burned to date (2010), is not large compared to organic and non-mineral carbon on the planet. It is 3.7 x 10^14 kg-C.
By comparison, the present total mass of CO2 as carbon in the atmosphere is 8.6 x 10^14 kg-C where CO2 is a trace gas with present concentration 390 ppmv (parts per million by volume) and where the atmosphere is the smallest global reservoir of carbon on the planet.
Even as Earth’s atmosphere goes the present concentration of CO2 is historically low compared to biomass highly productive periods during which CO2 concentrations where as high as 20 times the present level. Past bio-productive periods are part of the reason we have fossil fuels today.
The present low concentration of CO2 is growth limiting for plants under conditions where other essential nutrients do not first limit growth. Indeed, experiments have shown that today’s plants grow up to 50% faster than under present conditions when the CO2 concentration of the ambient atmosphere is 1000 ppmv, all other factors remaining the same and non-growth limiting.
Beyond the atmospheric carbon reservoir, the present planetary biomass alone (1 x 10^15 kg-C) is approximately three times the amount of total post-industrialization fossil fuel burned to date where even this biomass carbon is only carbon in living organisms.
In addition there is at least 10 times more carbon contained in non-living organic matter than in biomass – in organic detritus, soils, bogs, natural waters, lake sediments, marine sediments, and so on. For example, from my own research, the boreal forest (the largest ecosystem on Earth) contains millions of lakes that have not even been counted. These virtually unstudied lakes have accumulated organic-rich bottom sediments (preserved by anoxia) that have not yet been included in global carbon accounting studies.
Furthermore, there is approximately fifty times more dissolved carbon in ocean water than contained as CO2 in the atmosphere.
These bio-available carbon pools (biomass, organic matter, atmosphere, ocean water) do not include geological stores and sources from volcanoes and active geothermal sites. Volcanic activity, in particular, is unpredictable and has been highly variable in intensity since life burst onto the planet (billions of year ago), with often dramatic impacts on global ecology.
In summary, the total amount of post-industrial fossil fuel burned to date (and expressed as kilograms of carbon) represents less than 1% of the global bio-available carbon pools.
More importantly, bio-available carbon is a minor constituent of the Earth’s surface environment and one that is readily buffered and exchanged between compartments without significant consequences to the diversity and quantity of life on the planet. The known history of life on Earth (over the last billions of years) is unambiguous on this point.
Left progressive First-World elitist and disconnected policy consumers and service intellectuals need to recalibrate their sense of self-importance and correct the blindness that this sense produces.
WHERE IS THE FOSSIL CARBON GOING?
(Falsely) assuming direct input and no other inputs or outputs, the total post-industrial fossil fuel burning to date (2010) should have produced a post-industrial increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration from 275 ppmv (parts per million by volume) to 500 ppmv or so. Instead, the measured increase to 390 ppmv is half the “expected” amount.
Likewise, on the dynamic time scale of one year, the present (2010) rate of fossil fuel burning CO2 release to the atmosphere (4.0 ppmv/y) is twice the present measured rate of increase of actual atmospheric CO2 concentration (2.1 ppmv/y).
A factor of two (in both the amount and the annual rate) is not nothing. This factor of two is in fact an underestimate because the post-industrial deforestation would also have contributed CO2 to the atmosphere. Where is the anthropogenic CO2 going?
Click source to read FULL report by Denis G. Rancourt