Ambassador Bheki Gila is a barrister-at-law. Photo: Supplied
Ambassador Bheki Gila is a barrister-at-law. Photo: Supplied

The opportunities of carbon dioxide – and their cost to life per se

By Time of article published Nov 2, 2021

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Bheki Gila

A 300 000-YEAR-OLD story is told that throughout the many episodes of the ice age and its warm interludes, humans eked it out on a fossil fuel chance discovery, and somehow clawed their way out of the cave straight into the Stone Age.

From that time hitherto, the criticality of greenhouse gases has always underwritten the narrative of the human project.

To an appreciable degree, the notoriety of these fossil fuels and their resulting anthropogenic gases, especially carbon dioxide, has received a fair amount of publicity. These include the scale and extent of their coverage in the biosphere and their cost to human, animal and plant life.

And so in this age, we find ourselves faced with the prospect of a severe global warming accounting wholly to our conduct. Our immediate task is to evaluate the opportunities that carbon dioxide presents.

Its controversial profile, notwithstanding, it is a prodigiously abundant waste product. The urgent question therefore is whether or not carbon dioxide can play a facilitating role in the provision of electricity.

Of electricity, many things can be said all along its operational value chain, including its vast array of uses. Electricity is so pervasive that modern livelihoods and the lifestyles they support are not conceivable without it.

The starting point is how it is generated. Only when it begins to flow, life’s many cycles, domino-effect like, become possible. So critical is its utility that even alternative energy machinations like solar panels and wind turbines can only be fabricated through a process that involves electricity.

The electric-powered vehicles are no different. The batteries they use need to be charged with electricity. As of this moment, so much of the electricity is generated from fossil fuels. And in the process, a lot of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.

With a smaller global population and with no major cities, we have had our primary heat sources from cutting down trees and for propulsion, celluloid energy was converted from agricultural waste products. Looking back at this early stage of rudimentary technology intervention, there are important lessons to be learnt.

The most important of these is about populations. A smaller population located in non-urban settings and busying itself with subsistence farming has produced negligible amounts of greenhouse gases.

Beyond certain population thresholds, however, increasing exponentially every decade and rapidly urbanising, there is a general technological explosion that attends to this trend, requiring an enormous amount of energy beyond the intensity capabilities of farmed renewables.

This population and environment correlation possibility is sobering.

It suggests two mutually exclusive options, which are very difficult to negotiate. The one is that the environment has a sensitive threshold to rising human populations. The other is that humans as guests, despite their rising numbers, should behave sensibly and respect the parameters of tolerance of its host.

The point of balance is philosophically difficult to determine and from our collective experience, too politically inconvenient to confront. The concept of base load and its primary sources, assumes that we need electricity as a basic condition for our common survival. Base load, therefore, answers to the question of consistency and scale.

If trees cannot provide guarantee as primary sources of energy for fast growing human populations, fossil fuels have emerged as great pretenders in their stead. Coal, gas and crude oil in the main, respond to this description. Ironically, they are the factors that have brought us to this point.

Yet, even coal and its hydrocarbon cousins for all their temporary convenience, may not be around long enough to answer the question of consistency and sustainability that carbon dioxide will be.

There is so much of it right now that with or without fossils, its sustainable conversion into energy is possible for a fairly prolonged time scale to cater for the rising population numbers. It is an abundant resource with pronounced utility capabilities.

Just like plastic, those who know what to do with it, access it for easy picking, depending on the incentives of the municipal laws where they are found. Similarly, with carbon dioxide, even though there are no easy ways of capturing it, it is littered everywhere in the atmosphere. Found at concentration levels of 400 parts per million, not all carbon dioxide is born equal.

Depending on their parentage and circumstance, its affordability will be determined by our unbridled capital instincts.

And like all other commodities, it will have to fit neatly into the human economic greed matrix.

The other task facing this unnerving epoch is to unshackle the carbon molecule from the hypocrisy of the politically powerful syndicates.

They influence politicians to contrive unseemly policy positions that achieve nothing, what Timothy Mitchell in Carbon Democracy terms “the institutionalisation of uselessness”.

About these syndicates, like the climate change denialists, single issue fundamentalists, economic hitmen and lobbyists for hire, they are extreme on both sides of the political spectrum.

They specialise in distorting our lived reality and out of these mind-binding efforts, entertain the social media universe. Just like former US president Ronald Reagan, if they disagree with science, they buy their own version to contradict yours.

The battle for the monopoly of dictating what is right or wrong, continues unabated, in some cases overtly, but mostly subtlety.

There are on the one side, politicians and their capital lobbyists who think they know better on what should be done. On the other hand, there are dedicated scientists on the subject, whose social moment for articulation constantly eludes them.

This is a perpetual struggle for the exclusive privilege to interpret facts according to the political expediency of the moment.

All the while the immutable scientific facts, unamused by so much cognitive ignorance, remain untainted and to the advantage of all humankind, incapable of being owned.

It’s an awkward coexistence where the political apparatus have no scientific leaning, and neither does science have any social empathy. It is a political mismatch that is permanently self disempowering. Trapped in this intellectual gridlock, we have a great incentive to treat carbon dioxide with political care and informed scientific curiosity. It is all our common property now.

It may be too early to call on the true long-term opportunities of this choking gas when dumped in abundance into the atmosphere. And truer still, there are a plenitude of global warming scenarios which are scientifically predictable yet ethically too difficult to define. They seem to project a vast curve of permutations, making it uncertain as to where the survival of the human race could end up.

No doubt in another century, a new breed of intellectual warriors will emerge to hunt and harvest other greenhouse delinquents like methane. Their historic destiny would be markedly less onerous. They would be armed with the studious zeal of their forbears who in a popular phrase, turned CO2 lemons into electricity lemonades.

If it is true that humans have been around for approximately 300 000 years and the ice age only ended about 11 000 years ago, this may mean that as a species we have survived way much longer inside the ice age than out of it. In this brief timeline interlude, for such a self proclaiming intelligent race, we have surprisingly revealed a very violent instinct and in turn, unleashed a programme of destructiveness that may well end up exterminating humankind.

It would not surprise anyone that a commercialised carbon molecule, requiring high technological intervention for conversion, may spur the militarised societies to begin to make exclusionary rules as to who can and cannot access carbon dioxide freely and for what reason. Nuclear energy has taught us that. There is no need hoping they wouldn’t. Too late. The race for the ownership of the molecule has begun.

To the essential question whether or not carbon dioxide as a primary input can play a facilitating role in the production of electricity, there are some conceptual possibilities whose models are undergoing technical feasibilities. One of them is a project sponsored by the prestigious Cornell University in the US. In an article published by Melissa Osgood, she believes the university has found a solution subject to cost, scale and incentives.

Fortunately, there are other published studies in various stages of advance. Whenever we are so minded to consider CO2 as a technologically accessible resource, it will begin to diminish fast. If we cease to use coal and crude oil as primary energy sources, the available CO2 will have to contend with enormous demands.

And so, in that state of merchantability, we may have to treat it as a diminishing resource.

Ambassador Bheki Gila is a barrister-at-law.

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.

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