Carbon - making the invisible visible

If carbon dioxide real time emissions were 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 failing.

A common misconception

It is a common misconception to associate fumes visible to the human eye with carbon dioxide emissions. This is 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, although 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

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 build up over long periods of time.

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 photographic media, 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.

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

Business implications

If such technology was available, perhaps a simple solution to reducing global carbon emissions would be to widely spread this 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 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 worse 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 and the lag in response of Earth systems, we are still in a position to significantly reduce the severity of the impacts such as sea level rise.

Such visualisation disclosure approach would raise awareness on the source of the problem more effectively; pressure society and decisions makers and private sector; allow transparent monitoring of CO2 emissions at different levels (city, country, targeted locations).

The move to a greener economy is achievable with technologies today. What is lacking is a trigger to pressure societies to move faster. For this to happen, perhaps drastic measures such as this one is needed.

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