Sunday, April 25, 2021

Do We Need More Carbon Dioxide?

 

Author’s Note

I wrote the original version of this essay on the carbon dioxide cycle in 2015. Over the years, parts have been copied and used by other authors. Although some people will challenge the precision of the data (some always do), it presents an interesting review of this important subject. If you plan to discuss or write about CO2, this essay makes an excellent starting point.

 

Introduction

In high school and college I did reasonably well in the physical sciences: chemistry, physics and geology. From these studies one can learn that carbon (C) is an element, is widely available throughout our universe, is chemically active (which means many inorganic and organic compounds include carbon), is present in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2), is present in all natural fresh and ocean water, is a component of rocks (such as limestone), is a primary element of buried organic materials (including hydrocarbon deposits of oil, coal and natural gas), and is a very important element of the human body (about 18.5% of the elements in our body by mass). In fact, all life on this planet is based on hydrocarbon compounds which include carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.

By contrast, carbon dioxide (CO2) is a colorless, tasteless and odorless gas that occurs naturally everywhere in, on and above our planet. Carbon dioxide is not carbon, but it does include one carbon atom and two atoms of oxygen. Carbon dioxide occurs naturally in the atmosphere. Higher levels of CO2 encourage the growth of stronger and more abundant plants. All plant life (a form of organic matter) has been produced by the interaction of CO2 with energy received from the sun (photosynthesis). Oil, natural gas and coal are derived from buried organic matter which has been compressed and heated over millions of years.

If there were no CO2 in the atmosphere; humans, animals, birds, fish, trees, shrubs, grains, fruits and vegetables would not exist. We humans either eat the results of photosynthesis directly (when we consume grains, fruits and vegetables), or indirectly (when we eat animals, birds and fish that have previously consumed plant life). Green plants make their own food by photosynthesis which typically converts CO2 into a sugar:  6 CO2 (Carbon dioxide) + 6H20 (Water) + sun light energy = C6H12O6 (sugar) +6O2 (Oxygen). Other conversions include trace elements and nitrogen.

Thus it makes no sense to examine the carbon cycle (an element) when we are really interested in the carbon dioxide cycle (a gas); most specifically we want to know how CO2 is produced and consumed, as well as how much residual CO2 there is in the atmosphere. In the graph that serves as a picture for this essay, we show the primary categories of how CO2 exchanged with the atmosphere. Down arrows represent a decrease in atmospheric CO2. Up arrows represent an increase in atmospheric CO2. The size of the arrow represents the relative importance of each category. We humans contribute approximately 4.7 percent of the CO2 that escapes into the atmosphere.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL), our planet’s atmospheric CO2 has been increasing at a rate of 1.59 Parts per Million/ per year from 1955 through 2021, or 0.000159% / year. The acceleration since 1980 has primarily been caused by the industrialization of Asian nations, most notably China.

 

Increasing Atmospheric CO2

Plant Respiration

Plants exchange carbon dioxide, oxygen, and water with the atmosphere through leaves and stems. The process of photosynthesis provides food and energy to increase the size and biological activity of every plant (the growth of leaves, stems, roots, fruits, seeds, and so on). The process of respiration in plants is the opposite of photosynthesis. Sugars produced during photosynthesis are combined with oxygen to produce the compounds and energy of plant growth. Excess CO2 is released into the atmosphere.

Decay of Life Forms

Microbial decay (decomposition of matter) is a process that starts soon after a plant or animal dies. Organic material is broken down into basic elements. Decomposition always includes the release of CO2.

Plant decay includes water leaching which liberates soluble carbon compounds, including CO2. Smaller plants are largely decomposed by soil invertebrate fauna. The decomposition of larger plants (like trees) typically involves parasitic life-forms such as insects and fungi. Microbial colonization accelerates the attack on plant cells. In the last stages of decay, cellulose, hemicellulose, microbial products, and lignin are chemically altered by microbes.

We humans, along with other animals, begin to decay almost immediately after death. The tissues of the animal body are broken down by internal chemicals and enzymes. Bacteria invade the tissues and start the process of putrefaction. Gases, including CO2, are released by decaying animal tissue.

Sea Surface

Although we do not have sufficient knowledge to establish all the dynamics of the CO2 gas exchange between the surface of the ocean and the surrounding atmosphere, it is estimated that slightly more CO2 is absorbed by the ocean than is released by the ocean surface into the air. It is both a physical and a chemical process that is primarily controlled by the differential between the concentrations of CO2 dissolved in the water and how much CO2 is available in the surrounding atmosphere. Since CO2 is soluble in water, we get the chemical equation CO2 + H2O = H2CO3, a weak form of carbonic acid. In the presence of free hydrogen H2CO3 + H = yields a bicarbonate ion which is stored within the waters of the ocean. The amount of CO2 which has been dissolved in the waters of the ocean varies with geographic location and the circulation patterns of the ocean currents. Higher concentrations are more likely to be found in the more populous and industrialized northern latitudes. Natural cycles in weather and ocean currents alter the rate at which the ocean soaks up and vents carbon dioxide. It is simple chemistry: carbon dioxide dissolves in water. As the earth warms, the amount of CO2 released by the oceans will increase.

Human Caused

The natural metabolism of the body produces CO2 as a byproduct which we (like all animals) exhale when we breath. We humans also release CO2 into the atmosphere when we raise animals, cut down trees, shrubs and grasses, burn peat and plants, consume fossil fuels, and so on. Our consumption of coal, oil and natural gas is by far the largest source of human caused CO2 because we consume large quantities of these fossil fuels by the process of combustion (burning). Gasoline, diesel, jet, and heavy fuels provide the energy that powers our transportation system, including personal vehicles. Natural gas, propane, heating oil, and kerosene heat our buildings and homes. Coal and natural gas are primary sources of the heat for the generation of electrical energy. As shown by the above table, we release about 4 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year; accounting for roughly 4.7 percent of all CO2 that is released into the atmosphere from all sources (both natural and human caused).

 

Decreasing Atmospheric CO2

Photosynthesis

Plants consume far more CO2 through the process of photosynthesis than they release into the atmosphere through the process of respiration. These chemical reactions make plants green (usually), help them to grow stronger, and increase the rate of growth. For plants, more CO2 is better and there is evidence that elevated levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have increased the greening of our planet. At least 35 percent of available man-made C02 is consumed by plant life on our planet.

CO2 Taken by Soils

Since CO2 is soluble in water, damp or wet soils will take up CO2 where its chemical components may combine with other chemicals in the soil to produce other compounds.

Sea Surface

The ocean – along with lakes and rivers – currently removes more CO2 than the waters of our planet release into the atmosphere.  The ocean reduces carbon dioxide through the CO2 gas exchange between the surface of the ocean and the surrounding atmosphere, and through photosynthesis by plant-like organisms (phytoplankton) that live in the ocean. Moss, algae, and other plant forms that live in bays and estuaries also remove CO2 by photosynthesis.  

Conversion of CO2

Chemical conversion includes biological and chemical conversion of CO2 into other compounds in the ground, in water, and in the atmosphere (reactions with water vapor and sunlight).

 

Results

In 2018 we humans caused the production of an estimated ~ 33890.8 Million Tons of CO2. From 2007 through 2017, CO2 emissions in North America decreased by 1.2 percent and they decreased by 1.5 percent in Europe. The emissions of CO2 increased by 2.6 percent in the Asia Pacific Region, 2.3 percent in Africa, 3.2 percent in the Middle East, .2 percent in CIS (includes former Russian states), and 1.7 percent in South and Central America. Total world emissions increased by 1 percent – BP Statistical Review.

Human caused CO2 is ~ 4.7 % of total global CO2 emissions (and increasing). Although the primary reason is the combustion of fossil fuels for domestic use, this figure also includes both combustion and non-combustion industrial processes (manufacture of plastics, fertilizers, paints, cement, asphalt, cosmetics, etc.), agricultural land use changes, deforestation and logging, as well as CO2 from forest and peat fires.

The Annual Net Increase of global atmospheric CO2 is ~ 0.000159% / year in parts per million. This percentage is the average annual mean of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide observed by NOAA ESRL at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii over the last 66 years.

Chemical decomposition, photosynthesis, and absorption eventually remove man-made carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It’s a natural process.

 

TCE

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

What is Cultural Economics?

 

Introduction

This definition of Cultural Economics is based on its use to provide a rational foundation for strategic planning. Other definitions exist.

My efforts, which go back to 1969, were motivated by sheer necessity. I was involved in the development, sale, marketing, financing, installation, and operation of complex systems. For my customers these systems required a substantial financial commitment and usually changed the way they managed their operations. Later in my career, this logical process was helpful in working with my business development clients who were making a long term commitment to a significant business strategy.

In all my work, it became increasingly important to understand the economic and cultural factors that would affect the long term probability of business success.

 

A Challenging, Interesting, and Provocative Field of Study

Cultural Economics is the study of how human culture interacts with economic events and conditions. Culture, in this sense, includes everything we are: our political systems, religious beliefs, ethnic character, economic attitudes, mores, traditions, history, customs, arts, sciences, and education. These all play a role in how we chose to organize the production of goods and services, the values we place on labor and opportunity, how we make purchase and investment decisions, and how we utilize the resources of this earth. The term "Economics" refers to the extent and process of how we manage money; the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services; and the impact of available labor, government policy and technological change on our choices. In the aggregate, these drive the data that is used to measure how our economy is behaving - markets, raw materials, production, finished goods, distribution, revenues, costs, profits, inventory, employment, housing, income, money, savings, stocks, bonds - and so on. 

 

Why is Cultural Economics Important?

Cultural Economists must have a strong sense of the cultural matrix within which economic and business phenomena occur. However irrational they may appear, values and traditions are non-the-less relevant to economic analysis. Political and religious allegiance influence purchase decisions. Fear and greed are economic motivators. Attitudes about education, individual rights, the accumulation of wealth and the importance of private property drive the adoption of economic systems and political institutions. Collectivist, dictatorial and free market solutions all compete for political power that will determine how labor, capital and material resources are allocated and managed. Culture defines the collective manifestations of whom and what we are, including our religious beliefs, political systems, customs, values, intellectual acumen and creative endeavors.

It should be obvious. Whether we are making long range forecasts to guide business decisions or the performance of a national economy, we must understand how cultural change will interact with economic events and conditions.  

 

What sets Cultural Economics apart from other methodologies of economic analysis?

Economic research frequently yields inadequate conclusions based on irrelevant or obsolete data that has been interpreted using algorithms of questionable relevance. In other words - we play with the numbers. It's a great academic exercise. Big spread sheets are used to model business and economic decisions. Then we project our conclusions into the future on the basic assumption that future reality will be an extension of past data.

Sometimes it actually works. We can usually make reasonable estimates of near term demand and consumption, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), inflation, employment and so on. Business operations are unlikely to change very much over the next six months. We thus have a reasonable probability of success if we are making a specific forecast for near term event driven data. It helps our accuracy if future events within the forecast period are well understood and relatively static. In other words – our economic environment will not be altered by any surprises such as weather disasters or unanticipated political events.

Unfortunately: the longer the forecast period, the higher the margin of error. Cultural change is a given. Technology and innovation change familiar patterns of production, distribution and consumption. Our economic environment is always evolving in reaction to current events. If we only use historical data as the basis of our economic analysis, then forecasts that extend out beyond a year or two will be something of a crap shoot.

Why?  Because the future is seldom an exact duplicate of the past. The technology boom of the 1990s was a one time series of specific events. Although the economic decline of 2008 can be traced to short term economic and cultural trends, it is unlikely they will ever be duplicated. It is therefore useless to extrapolate the economic data of that period in making forecasts of future events. When the boom went bust, all of our economic data got reshuffled.  Sure.  We will have other periods of boom - and bust - but they will be propelled by a different set of circumstances. For example: although data from periods like the Great Depression and the 1990s can be used as points of comparison, they are unlikely reliable blueprint of future events.

We must conclude that if we hope to forecast future reality with any accuracy, we must find a way to factor cultural change into our economic analysis. To meet the demands of this challenge, we need the disciplines of Cultural Economics.

 

What are the disciplines of Cultural Economics?

Cultural Economics is not some dreary cross between tedious accounting and data necrophilia. It is a science that quantifies the past, present and future of human behavior. If human existence is dynamic, then economics – as a field of study – must be able to characterize the interaction of culture and economics in contemporaneous terms.

In order to make sense of future reality, we need to know how to focus our attention on a specific issue. This can be a difficult decision. What, exactly, is our objective? Since all of our research and analysis will be focused and guided by our defined issue, it must be clearly understood. It will guide us in the selection of what data is, and is not relevant. Not all the data revealed by our research is valuable, and may even distract our quest for answers.

Research is a process of discovery. Assuming we have done a good job of identifying the key issues and developing a relevant set of questions, we can now plunge into a period of intensive primary and secondary research. Raw information is accumulated and assembled into a series of related data structures that describe events, trends and environments. We are not looking for random pieces of information. Every piece of data that we chose to save must relate to the essential issues and questions of our inquiry. During our research efforts, we will undoubtedly develop additional questions that scream for an answer because they are critical to our analysis and forecast.

Analysis is a process of creation. Starting with validated data structures, we assemble a hypothesis of future reality. Our hypothesis can then be tested for logical consistency and intellectual credibility. Analysis yields understanding. In many cases, its greatest value is in the identification of what we do not know (and need to find out).

After we collect, organize, calibrate, qualify, verify and synthesize a mountain of data that will (hopefully) permit us to accurately describe the contemporary economic environment and to lay down a credible forecast of future trends, we can proceed with our analysis and interpretation. Our forecast, and the data upon which it is based, can then be substantiated by treating it as a hypothesis. In order for the hypothesis to be true, it must have internal and external intellectual consistency. The individual data elements should be verifiable through further research. If our hypothesis survives this rigorous examination, we have a credible forecast of future reality.

Our final step is to document our conclusions and forecasts in a comprehensive report that expresses our findings in a way that minimizes complexity. We want the reader to understand, and perhaps take action, with confidence.

So there you have it.

The market or industry research used in Cultural Economics is a process that involves a number of interrelated steps. Research reports are based on facts and opinions which have been compiled, organized, analyzed and interpreted by someone who understands the research process.  Cultural Economics is not about static absolutes.

 

The Undeniable Truth

If my work had been confined to the mind numbing analysis of extinct events described by copious quantities of dubious numerical data; if economics were merely an exercise in abstract analysis based entirely on theory; then my interest would have withered long ago. But I quickly learned that neither number crunching nor theory can predict real world events with consistent accuracy. It is people – in their infinite diversity - who interact with economic events and conditions. That undeniable truth makes Cultural Economics a challenging, interesting, and provocative field of study.

 

Have I Used These Skills?

I have pursued Cultural Economics as an avocation since 1969; written multiple essays on GDP, unemployment, inflation, and other economic topics for a blog (The Cultural Economist); and used the accumulated skills in several consulting projects. But most of the work, the kind that pays real money, has been earned working with high technology companies: computers, computer peripherals, voice and data communications, semiconductors, software, consumer electronics, and so on. User research gradually shifted from internal corporate and government technology system consumers, to the determination of how the public in various cultures would react to new consumer products. The work became increasingly complex. Innovation often requires years of work by materials scientists, product engineers, manufacturing engineers, and an army of skilled technicians. We were expected to be proficient in understanding the entire process from initial development to volume production, the marketing and sales of the resulting products, and how, when, in what volume, and at what price they would be adopted by the final consumer. My Cultural Economics avocation became an integral component of my projects.

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