Carbon spark: making the invisible visible!

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If we were to make carbon dioxide real time emissions visible to everyone, society would come to realize to a much greater extent what the source of the climate change problem is and in so doing accelerate the current path to a low carbon economy.

The year 2013 is synonymous with an important date in recent climate change history: for the first time in at least 2 million years, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (currently still the main contributor of global warming) have passed 400 parts per million in atmospheric concentrations. Despite that this is only a symbolic number, it is a reminder of the fact that we are on a dangerous path and that our efforts to significantly reduce global carbon emissions are still failing.

A common misconception

It is a very common misconception to associate fumes visible to the human eye with carbon dioxide emissions. This is indeed false as carbon dioxide is in fact an invisible gas to the human eye. Fumes coming out of factories and commonly portrayed in the press to illustrate global warming are often nothing more than water vapour mixed with other trace substances.

This misconception, despite often unintentional, has had very negative implications because as a result people tend to associate visible fumes with the level of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. In fact the pure carbon dioxide emitted in large quantities is omnipresent and invisible around us. Furthermore, CO2 often originates from sources we would not suspect are the biggest emitters.

Making the invisible visible

It is a simple fact that if we were able to see carbon dioxide emissions from our various activities in real time, we would come to realise to a much greater extent what the source and the seriousness of the global warming problem are.

It is a known human psychology fact that we don’t tend to react fast enough to things that we don’t see. Our brain is not meant to react to invisible threats especially when these threats are also building up over long periods of times rather than being sudden.

In theory, it would be technologically possible to isolate carbon dioxide from other emissions and to visually display the output. Such processes are commonly used by astrophysicists to identify the composition of gases in stars many light years away, each molecule having specific wavelength signatures. However, the process is time consuming and requires modelling and image processing. If we could improve this technology and easily display carbon dioxide emissions on a real time video or a photographical media (a bit like currently available infrared vision on cameras, but for CO2 visualisation), it would revolutionize the way we view the climate change problem and possibly how we react to the threat.

In addition to light analysis, there are already various chemical processes which can make CO2 visible. However, if the idea is to make CO2 emissions widely visible a chemical reaction would not be feasible on a large scale (only good for localised applications).

While some work has been done to try to visually showcase carbon emissions, these remain reconstitutions and not real time images. Below is a good case study of a reconstitution to showcase the carbon emissions of New York City (source

Business implications

If such technology was to be made available, perhaps a simple solution to improve our efforts to reduce global carbon emissions would be to widely spread transparency in carbon emissions visibility. In a similar way that sustainability reporting is becoming more and more of a practice; emissions visibility disclosure could play a key role in accelerating a shift to a low carbon economy.

Being able to see where most emissions come from in real time would also allow better management and control.

It is foreseen that many businesses would rather not display their emissions and are likely to oppose the idea. However, people and society should really ask themselves if we are still in a position to delay a shift to a low carbon economy much longer?

The reality is that climate change predictions are rather grim and that we are already heading towards worst case scenarios which will become even worst if we continue business as usual. We only have a matter of years to significantly shift to a low carbon economy. While changes will happen anyhow due to the already present levels of greenhouse gases that we have added to the atmosphere and the lag in response of Earth systems, we are still in a position to significantly reduce the severity of the impacts (e.g. sea level rise).

Such visualisation disclosure approach would certainly accelerate our shift to low carbon economy by:

–          Raising awareness on the source of the problem more effectively (images don’t lie!);

–          Pressuring society and decisions makers;

–          Pressuring private sector to reduce their emissions;

–          Allowing effective and transparent monitoring of CO2 emissions at different levels (city, country, targeted locations).

While many still see a shift to a low carbon economy as an obstacle to development, it is actually an opportunity to re-establish a wealthy steadily growing economy and to create many jobs in the process.

Perhaps efforts to make CO2 emissions easily visible should be an important research focus in addition to finding mitigation and removal solutions.

Technology is available today and will significantly improve in the coming years to allow a shift to a low carbon economy. What is lacking is a spark to pressure societies to move faster. We need to shift to a low carbon economy now and for this to happen drastic actions are required such as the one described in this article.

By Sylvain Richer de Forges


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