It is a sad but true fact that a vast proportion of cyberspace is devoted to complete nonsense.

Ironically, a large proportion of this appears on the surface to be plausible. A vivid example of this is the story of dihydrogen monoxide. The website tells you all about the hazardous properties of DHMO: death through inhalation, severe burns from gaseous DHMO, etc. In the environment, it is also responsible for severe corrosion of metals, soil erosion and is the major constituent of acid rain.

It certainly sounds like a very hazardous substance and should probably be banned. Except, of course, that the alternative name of this substance is water.

We are now at risk of demonizing another common chemical in the environment without a proper scientific understanding of its properties. That substance is carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide has been in the headlines recently as the federal government obviated the ongoing negotiations with the provinces about carbon pricing by providing the answer unilaterally.

There is a legitimate discussion occurring globally about carbon dioxide and climate change, but it is a complex topic with different risks and benefits depending on where you live.

As a scientist, I don’t like the political distortion of things that can be described and analyzed by good science. The first step in this distortion is the misuse of vocabulary. Attaching a pejorative name to something distorts the discussion by providing the conclusion before the debate has commenced.

We’ve seen that with “frankenfoods” — a thoroughly uninformative and misleading term designed to scare people about genetically modified crops. But now we are hearing carbon dioxide described a “pollutant.” This term was actually used in the House of Commons recently in debate. CO2 is not a pollutant any more than dihydrogen monoxide (water) is a “corrosive agent.”

This misuse of vocabulary is already skewing what should be a rational discussion.

First, let us be clear. Carbon dioxide is an essential part of our atmosphere, and all life depends on it. It is vital for plant life and therefore for all food. If it were depleted much below historical averages, we would see massive food shortages. Indeed, increases in atmospheric CO2 since 1982 have been shown by scientists in Australia to have increased plant growth by about 11 per cent. Hardly what you would expect from a pollutant.

This does not in any sense suggest that high CO2 levels could not have other deleterious effects on climate, but the situation is complicated and must be appreciated as such.

This report from highly reputable scientists reminds us that the most fundamental “thermostat” for carbon dioxide in the environment is photosynthesis, the process through which atmospheric CO2 is converted to food and fibre such as wood. Photosynthetic organisms, early plants, have for more than two billion years controlled the CO2 and oxygen balance on Earth. Land plants, such as trees and grasses (and crops) only emerged around 500 million years ago, but they now perform a large part of this stabilization through sequestering atmospheric CO2.

What has this got to do with carbon pricing? Well actually a great deal. This is because while some parts of the economy might be generating CO2, other parts of the same economy could be sequestering massive amounts of CO2. This occurs through photosynthesis, either in agriculture or forestry, and even in marginal land with grass or shrub cover.

If you plan to tax somebody within a jurisdiction for creating atmospheric CO2, it is only fair to ask that jurisdiction if it sequesters large amounts of CO2 to offset its “industrial” carbon.

Neither in the Paris accord nor in recent Canadian government discussions have the contributions of photosynthesis in agriculture or forestry even been mentioned. Yet, new farming practices such as no-till agriculture, made possible through biotechnology crops, have sequestered the carbon equivalents per annum of removing four million cars off the roads.

So if we are to get carbon pricing right, it must be scientific, quantitative and, above all, fair. It isn’t simple, but it is only reasonable that if we tax someone for increasing carbon in the atmosphere, we must also pay those who counterbalance those emissions through the process of managed photosynthesis (farmers and foresters) and indeed give credit to low population provinces or territories that sequester CO2 for us all through large areas of forests or grasslands. 

This column originally appeared in the Star Phoenix.


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