Carbon dioxide — not a pollutant

May 1st, 2006
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The news media so routinely use the expressions “air pollution”, “pollution”, “carbon dioxide”, “C02”, “smog” and “greenhouse gases” interchangeably that most people probably assume that carbon dioxide is an air pollutant. It isn’t.

Human-related emission of carbon dioxide, or C02 (the 2 should appear as a little subscript, which I can’t make on this blogging program), is the main culprit the global warming movement has targeted for enforced reductions under the Kyoto Protocol. As most readers will know, this would come at potentially enormous cost to the economy.

It obviously increases the movement’s catastrophist creds if most people somehow come to believe that C02 is innately harmful, toxic, a pollutant or a constituent of smog.

It is none of those. C02 is not only naturally occurring (which doesn’t in itself disqualify it from being a pollutant), but it is crucial to life on Earth. Remember, plants breathe it, making it one of the three critical inputs to plant life (along with water and sunlight).

See also the bottom paragraph of this post, which links to a recent Calgary Herald article on global warming, or check out the voluminous information available at the Friends of Science website.

Obviously, too much C02 is toxic, but then so is too much nitrogen in air or even too much water. The fact that “too much” of something makes it bad doesn’t make it a pollutant (although a certain editor at the National Post bases his claim that C02 is a pollutant on that tenuous logical thread).

Interesting, and important, is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not include C02 under either its list of the six major air pollutants, nor under its full listing of 188 air pollutants. C02 does not contribute to the smog that, to most ordinary urban people, is the air pollution they would most like to get rid of. (Ironically, water vapour is a part of smog.)

This is far more than a semantic or pedantic issue. The success of the global warming movement, aided by a lazy or complicit news media, in conflating C02 with air pollution deeply confuses the public debate concerning which policies should be adopted to reduce actual pollution, versus merely cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Most people would be willing to pay something for cleaner air; far fewer would wish to beggar our economy in a mad quest to “fight climate change”. This is a King Canute-like folly that is guaranteed to fail for numerous reasons, not least because the world’s fastest-growing greenhouse gas emitters are not even participating. Yet today most people think that, in backing Kyoto, they would be helping to reduce air pollution.

This is one reason why the Conservative government’s firmly stated intention to distinguish between fighting actual pollution and merely ratcheting down C02 emissions is important, and has our support.

Update: There are also profound constitutional implications (in Canada) to the definition of C02 as a pollutant or non-pollutant. I’ll blog separately on this topic in the coming days.

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