There is no Decarbonisation
How a Misnomer Manifested a Myth

There’s no clickbait here; the title spells out the facts. Carbon is the fourth-most abundant element in the universe and, by extension, on Earth. (Hydrogen, helium and oxygen are the top three, in that order).

Further, all life on Earth is carbon-based. From you and me to every little bug, plant and even that infernal virus of our times, SARS‑CoV‑2, are all made with carbon.

Fundamental 1:

One cannot “decarbonise” planet Earth; this term is a misnomer. Carbon cannot go anywhere, and neither can carbon be reduced in any way. Mass cannot be created nor destroyed but can be converted from one form to another. This is a fundamental principle in physics called the law of conservation of mass. Its corollary, the law of conservation of energy, similarly states that energy cannot be created or destroyed but can be converted from one form to another.

Einstein’s famous theory of relativity, E=mc2, defines how matter and energy interact. 

Fundamental 2:

Let’s try to understand what system boundaries are. Simply put, the Earth, including its atmosphere, is our system boundary. Yes, we’ve begun to explore the fringe beyond our atmosphere and have been to the moon, with a probe now passing through the outer half of our solar system, but for all intents and purposes, we’re still a species confined to this one planet.

Now that we’ve established these two fundamentals let us examine what happens for us to exist.

Earth receives energy from the sun. It is this energy that plants, including the trees outside your window and the phytoplankton in the ocean, absorb. This is where the “magic” happens; well, not exactly magic, but photosynthesis is magical when you think about it. These lovely organisms convert carbon dioxide and water vapour into glucose and oxygen. This allows you, me, and every other creature to breathe and eat- essentially – survive. But do these creatures absorb all of the energy received from the sun? Nope. What they don’t absorb radiates into space, not as light, but as heat.

(Now you know why engineers drone about mass-energy balance.)

This system, delicately in balance, facilitated by the sun's energy, regulated by biochemistry on Earth, allows “life” as we know it. Those elements, like hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, form and reform into simple and complex molecules, allowing us to survive. We'd call this dynamic equilibrium if one had to slap a science term on it.

But let’s get back to “decarbonisation”. Why this term?


As it turns out, we’ve observed empirically and anecdotally that something seems off with the weather. With some research, humans figured out what was happening: there was more carbon dioxide in our atmosphere than usual, and more was added every minute than all the trees and phytoplankton could absorb. And that this extra carbon dioxide was acting like a blanket, trapping the heat inside, which would otherwise radiate back into space. This is what is commonly referred to as global warming.

This extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was a direct consequence of combusting fossil fuels. In essence, all that organic matter, all those plants, plankton, and dinosaurs that had died aeons ago, all of that stored carbon, was now being combusted to generate energy. But remember, actions have consequences.

The key factor to recognise here is time; the fossil fuel age is approximately the last 200 years. For context, organic matter on Earth – life – is 2 billion years old at least. To put this into context, it is the equivalent of an average human spending their entire life’s savings, including their inheritance, in less than five minutes. Didn’t you think there would be consequences?

But what could be done given that the human world is so consumed by the idea of perpetual growth, fuelled by fossil energy (and its sinister cousin – petrochemicals)?

Literature research suggests that the term “decarbonisation” was coined sometime in 1990-91 by Kenji Yamaji and Yoichi Kaya, describing short-term structural change trends in the OECD. A subsequent paper, titled "Decarbonising the Global Energy System” by Arnulf Grubler & Nebojsa Nakicenovic, published by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria, in March 1997, came to a more sobering conclusion:

“…it will simply not suffice to rely on "autonomous" structural change toward carbon-freer energy systems, especially considering the slow historical rates of decarbonisation of 0.30% per year. They are dwarfed by historical and anticipated future growth rates in energy use and resulting carbon emissions. Substantial acceleration of decarbonisation would thus entail both ambitious technological and policy changes. Whereas such changes are inherently difficult to anticipate, it is also a matter of fact that historically it was precisely structural changes that enabled us to improve quality and quantity of energy services. Such structural changes are rarely represented in studies of energy-environment interactions. This suggests that decarbonisation and its driving forces may still be insufficiently captured in most models and scenarios of the long-term evolution of the energy system.”

While the idea that electricity is clean and that we’ll all be driving EVs, charged by solar panels or wind turbines, and flying in aeroplanes fuelled by “green” hydrogen is highly appealing, none of this will manifest. The failure is because the system boundary – our finite planet and atmosphere – cannot accommodate the primary energy required to transition to these hypothetical systems nor the ecological impacts that this transition would entail.  

The idea that we can extend our “glidepath” and “runway” by investing in technologies such as direct air capture (DAC) and carbon capture and storage (CCS) may sound appealing on podcasts, but it is essentially bullshit.

Why?

Because that carbon is bonded to oxygen, this carbon dioxide is one part of the plant food needed to produce oxygen and glucose, the essential ingredients of life as we know it. Where will the oxygen and glucose needed to sustain life come from? How can we keep combusting carbon without oxygen? In effect, we’ll choke and starve to death. 

Conclusion

The concepts of physics, viz. matter and energy, combined with the chemistry and biology of the dynamic equilibrium described above, contained within the finite system boundary, planet Earth, suggest that we’re dead meat.

Economic theory and geopolitical ideologies cannot overcome the fundamentals of science.

“Decarbonisation” is not a fundamental concept; it is, at best, a misnomer. One that has managed to sow false hope and delay any meaningful action in managing, coping with and, least of all, halting the cascading climate crises.

Given the evidence, to suggest that the human species is intelligent is the biggest myth of all.

Awarded Impact funding from Akina