Following up yesterday’s post on balance sheets and charts for using and producing energy and reporting our numbers to see if we can make them balance, let’s look at carbon flows.
People who don’t know about carbon emissions, flows, and balance confuse simple ideas with each other. For example, some talk about how volcanoes and cows digestive systems produce tons of carbon and wonder why we should bother changing our practice.
When you understand amounts and flows, you don’t confuse unimportant effects for important ones, like business people who learn not to be penny wise and pound foolish.
Below is a representation of where carbon is on the Earth. It’s not exactly a balance sheet, though over time the total numbers have to add up. I find this representation interesting. I didn’t know how much was in the ocean. Please read the book for his assumptions and where he gets his numbers.
The text of the book I talked about yesterday and the day before, Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air, explains the time scales on which carbon can flow into and out of different places. For example, carbon can’t reach the huge sink of the deep ocean except through the surface waters, which circulate into deep waters over thousand-year time scales, meaning we don’t know how to access most of the planet’s carbon and potential carbon sinks on time scales relevant to us.
Understanding overall amounts helps, but flows help us understand our impact most. The image below shows the main net flows for the atmosphere. In particular, our burning fossil fuels moves carbon into the atmosphere faster than nature can move that carbon into the ocean. Moreover, that net rate is significant — over one percent — relative to the amount in the atmosphere.
A business person who saw over one percent of their cash moving from one part of the firm to another would learn what was happening and the consequences. A successful business person would, that is. Someone who didn’t would not likely stay in business long.
I find the above representations help me understand quantitatively what we’re doing to our environment. In the case of carbon, I don’t think you can understand the situation even qualitatively without understanding the above.
Again, I recommend the book for many more representations and to understand the environment and our impact on it better.