Invisible and harmless are not synonymous

There seems to be a lot of confusion around on this “carbon tax” and a lot of it seems to be due to the terminology that we’re using. I have been asked a few times “what is carbon pollution and how do you measure it”. I’ve also seen a variety of commentators pointing out (as if we didn’t know) that CO2 is odourless and colourless, as if this scientific revelation somehow nullifies the science of climate change or suggests that we are on the wrong path addressing it.

The problem is that the term “carbon pollution” conjures up sooty smoke billowing out into dark clouds into the sky. People are expecting “carbon” to be like a black powdery substance. And “pollution” is associated with the idea of toxic and/or radioactive contamination that is a danger to human health.

But carbon dioxide is none of these things. Yes, CO2 is odourless and colourless. Yes, you can’t see it. Yes, plants need it for photosynthesis. Yes, we breathe some if it in and we breathe more of it out. Yes, pictures of power stations show the steam coming off the cooling towers, not the stack showing (often invisible) exhaust gases coming off the top (except for the one in this post!). All true.

Personally, I have always preferred the more accurate term “greenhouse gas emissions”. In fact, I have had (and lost) arguments against people that want to use the term “carbon pollution” when I find it misleading. Greenhouse gases includes all the gases that have been proven to cause global warming and have global warming potential (GWP) factors associated with them, such as methane CH4 (21), nitrous oxide N2O (310) and so on. The GWP shows the impact, in terms of CO2 equivalents, that each tonne of this gas has in the atmosphere. However, given that “greenhouse gas emissions” is such a mouthful, “carbon” has become the industry’s shorthand language for describing this collection of gases, hence “carbon market”, “carbon finance”, “carbon trading” etc. Note as an aside that the largest trading exchange for “carbon” instruments in Europe still uses the term “Emissions”.

But despite its factual inaccuracies, “carbon pollution” has become the language used to explain the concept of pricing emissions to the punters. Why? Well, ask someone the street what the purpose of an “Emissions Trading Scheme” is. Blank look? Now try “Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme”. Um, well maybe it’s trying to reduce carbon pollution. It amuses me that some commentators go to pains to add “dioxide” in brackets after “carbon”, in some kind of protest of the use of the term “carbon”. Thanks for that. This is just industry jargon. Do we protest so vigorously when “smoking break” is abbreviated to “smoko” or the AUD-USD exchange rate is referred to as “the Aussie”?

All the arguments pointing out the nature of carbon dioxide are very relevant in an argument about whether it should be called “carbon pollution” or not. But they are not at all relevant in helping us understand the science of climate change or in addressing it at least cost via use of a price signal.


  1. Yes people do think of ‘carbon’ pollution as big stacks pumping out Carbon particle pollution or, even more relevant and worse, STEAM. YOU should ask YOURSELF why this!

    The confusion has been deliberately created by AGW extremists, and I include Garnaut and Gore in that lot,in an effort to alarm the population so much that they might agree to anything.

    Why do all the proponents of AGW and Carbon Tax picture show great massive chimneys belching out steam to illustrate their point? This has been quite deliberate and has continued despite massive objection from those of us who have tried to deal in facts.

    Why does Julia Gillard carry on so much about China closing power stations for Carbon Dioxide reduction when in fact they are closing small inefficient uneconomic power stations and building bigger more efficient ones?
    Certainly carbon particle and acid pollution is very high on their agenda but that is NOT Carbon Dioxide.
    Certainly there is less CO2 produced per KWatt generated but this is NOT the aim.
    This is just a straight out deliberate lie on her part.

    So this whole issue has been part of the AGW/Carbon Tax proponents deliberate obfuscation. It seems hypocritical to say the least to hear you now complaining about the confusion.

    • Carbon Bologny

      I agree, CEC the term was created by spin doctors, it’s not some form of innocent shorthand!!!

  2. Thanks for that.
    What I find most annoying in a very shallow ‘debate’ is the view that because a substance is vital in a biological process (in this case photosynthesis) it cannot be considered as a potential ‘poison’…..or even as ‘harmful’ under any circumstances.
    Such views demonstrate a very shallow understanding of the world around us.
    For example…
    Oxygen is vital for us, but in high enough concentrations it actually becomes dangerous
    Similarly, trace metals are also a necessary part of life for many species, yet are toxic at some concentrations
    This is why we have rules governing activities that produce elevated concentrations of most of these trace metals in water and sediments where they may concentrate up food chains.

    Now I’m not suggesting that carbon as carbon dioxide is toxic, but it needs to be understood that changes in concentrations of what appear to be ‘benign’ compounds or elements in the biosphere can have unintended consequences that can be ‘harmful’.
    To me the best example demonstrating the principle that something which is ‘good’ can be ‘harmful’ in some circumstances is the extensive use of fertilisers in agriculture.
    The growth of plants is dependent on sources of fixed nitrogen and phosphorus (nitrates, nitrites and phosphates), but when the concentrations of these rise in water, the result is typically eutrophication of rivers and lakes

    Thus, the use of fertilisers has been the basis of a green revolution, with outstanding benefits (if what you wanted was many more humans) but there are costs associated with these benefits, including nutrient enrichment of freshwater systems all over the planet…which we commonly refer to as ‘water pollution’.
    Now the generation of carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels can also been seen in the same way….it has enormous benefits, but there are costs, one of which is due to increasing concentrations of the gas in the atmosphere, and this can be considered as ‘atmospheric pollution’ in the same way our society considers nutrients can cause ‘water pollution’ in waterways.
    Incidentally I always find it useful to think of the atmosphere as an ‘ocean of air’ when considering the effects of our activities.

    • +1

      If I can add to that Russell, the non-comprehension of non-linear activity within complex systems.

      Am I not convinced about AGW, but I do understand non-linearities and what can happen when you approach/crossover an unknown tipping point.

      For mind, this debate should be referenced around insurance and hedging the “tail risk” of destructive (to humans – the planet will always be fine) climate change.

      And of course, the major focus should be on increasing energy output (more power!!!), not saving energy, but that’s another discussion.

      • good point re: non linearities because this is why we should be skeptical of the certainty with which modelling forecasts are touted. In non-linear systems ex-post curve fitting doesn’t necessarily lead to ex-ante predictive accuracy.

      • I agree Birdy – I too am sceptical about climate models, although they are vastly superior to econometric models (because they are somewhat empirical based) they still are not a “certainty” in the Popper sense – (i.e you can’t falsify the AGW thesis without a second Earth as a test case) and science is not immune from biases and ego.

        Having said that, they point to an uncertainty – a series of unknown outcomes that require we stand up and consider adopting some insurance.

        Insurance is all about uncertainty – you don’t wait and take out costly life insurance at age 81 knowing the actuarial model says you will die the next year.

        Although given how structurally unsound our economy is, the CPRS/MRRT and other measures are like getting trauma insurance for an obese chain smoking 55 year old….

      • actually I have worked in actuarial modelling in the USA and 81 year olds can take out insurance relatively easily …true. Everything has a price, even an insurance policy for the 55YO you described. You need to judge the medical reports of the person, their location etc. with the tables and build in a level of “safety”

        If you had that level of certainty with climate modelling we wouldn’t be having any of these debates.

        IMO the climate models can be tested by having the current forecasts every year for the ext hundred years published in some accessible place and continually updated. That way the public can see how well the modelling is working.

  3. I’ve also seen a variety of commentators pointing out (as if we didn’t know) that CO2 is odourless and colourless, as if this scientific revelation somehow nullifies the science of climate change or suggests that we are on the wrong path addressing it

    I thought people did that because media stories about global warming or the carbon tax tend to be accompanied by pictures of smoke, steam and all sorts of gloomy coloured emissions. Even that cate blanchett thing had smoke in the background.

  4. …Also pretty nit picky about those that want to use the accurate term carbon dioxide. In your example a smoking break and smoko are the same thing regardless of the term used. Carbon and carbon dioxide are quite different things — one is solid, including graphite and diamond, the other is a colourless gas. The importance of correct description should be obvious if you are seeking to pass legislation.

  5. Although given how structurally unsound our economy is, the CPRS/MRRT and other measures are like getting trauma insurance for an obese chain smoking 55 year old….

    Got my laugh for the day…thanks Prince

  6. Birdy Num Nums – carbon is the element. Carbon dioxide contains carbon. Diamond contains carbon. Graphite contains carbon. Referring to ‘carbon’ implies nothing about which matter state it is in (ie gas/liquid/solid).

    Prince – the strong scientific consensus on the reality of climate change is NOT dependent on modelling. Our understanding of the planet’s energy balance already provides this consensus. We know from the energy balance, simple physics and chemistry, plus observation, that the planet must be warming. What we *don’t* know is the precise *rate* at which it is warming, or the implications of all that extra heat for our planetary systems – for instance, the temperature must increase, but how will the climate respond to the extra heat?

    This is where the climate models come in – they sit a step below the planetary energy balance, and are used to try and understand how our climate will react to all the extra heat.

    If you want a better understanding of the things I mention above, I highly recommend “Storms of my Grandchildren”, by James Hansen. I read it earlier this year, and it is excellent.

    The validity of the planetary energy imbalance consensus is not affected by the soundness (or otherwise) of climate models.

    I composed a (long) post to a friend a few nights ago explaining the planetary energy imbalance science – if you’d like me to forward it to you, then please drop me a line at [email protected] – cheers.

    • Birdy Num Nums – carbon is the element. Carbon dioxide contains carbon. Diamond contains carbon. Graphite contains carbon. Referring to ‘carbon’ implies nothing about which matter state it is in (ie gas/liquid/solid).

      Since this is a finance/economic blog your imprecise knowledge, of chemistry is fair enough. The label used says everything about the state at which the thing is in. It may not seem significant to a lay person but you won’t pass a chemistry exam with lazy usage like that.

      Diamond and graphite ARE carbon. Carbon dioxide contains carbon. If a scientist refers to carbon it will only mean the solid.

      My comment was in response to what read like a nit picky objection to people who want some degree of precision in the language. Legislation covering this tax had better use precise language about what molecules are included and how a tax is calculated. Is the tax on one tonne of carbon in carbon dioxide or on one tonne of carbon dioxide. And so on. Precision is important.

  7. As far as pollution goes there is one heck of a difference between carbon particle and CO2 no matter which side of the debate you are on and it should be clear just which we are talking about. To do otherwise is to continue to obfuscate.

    The information being fed to the public and the ‘evidence’ being used is being deduced from models. This is being presented as fact. It isn’t. As a matter of fact there is a fair amount of evidence collecting that much of it is quite deliberate misrepresentation.

  8. Carbon E Coyote: Do you really think a lot of the confusion around the carbon tax debate is due to the terminology or the phrases the media uses containing the word “carbon”? This seems to be an unfocused article and an example of the confusion itself. Certainly I’m not any wiser about the carbon tax as a result your comment. I’d be happy to understand more on the enviro impact of the scheme in a world climate context, happy to understand more about its political impacts and macrobusiness impacts too. That would allow me to form more of an opinion about the value of the carbon tax.

    • Carbon E Coyote

      As someone that has followed the debate for some ten years, yes. This was not a discussion we had when Wong/Rudd announced the CPRS or Howard proposed the ETS. The debate around the term “carbon pollution” has all been whipped up since the election and the formation of the MPCCC.

      For the wider economic issues, read all my earlier posts.

  9. ‘Whipped up’
    I really dislike the tone displayed by some proponents. Anyone who studies and questions anything to do with EITHER the science or much of the daft modelling is labelled a ‘denier’ as if we are somehow out on the far right of the ‘holocaust deniers’. Then any question that is raised is labelled ‘whipped up’ manufactured hysteria.

    The problem is essentially one of a whole lot of untruths that have been told, models that are rubbish and then touted as predicting the certain inevitable end of the world as we know it, and at least some of the so-called science that has been cherry picked.

    Like others here I’m sick of the mantra that CO2 is essential to life and all that stupid trash. However I’m even more concerned by the refusal to look practically at what is proposed in terms of the economic effect, the erosion of private property rights, the abuse of the democratic process that has occurred, and the sacrifice of truth.
    Never mind I guess. The end justifies the means what!

  10. Swap “confusion” for deliberate “Obfuscation” and you get a better idea of whats going on.

    Language tortology, emotional blackmail and dumbing down is what we as a bogan electorate deserve. But that didn’t produce the expected electorate knock out punch. So they moved on to aversion therapy. The confusion will be fixed with eye drops, eyelid clamps, Bethoven and an image feed of smoke stacks and barren earth. No, that didn’t work either. How about the positive story then, can we have somones dad sitting in front of a subsidised 20K$ 2KVA photocell array and look smug? Nope, he looks too much like the guy that was installing insulation.

    Bugger ! Where to now?

    Answer any question positively. Like beating a polygraph test it’s all about mental preparation. To do this convincingly you just have to imagine yourself to be in one of the following parallel universes.

    1, Kyoto was ratified by all required parties. (If answering a question based on shame or net effects)
    2. Stuck in the implementation phase (if answering a jobs / economic impact question)
    3. Stuck in the innitial ETS phase. (If answering a market forces will save us question)
    4. Stuck in the average ETS phase. (Not many questions expected here)
    5. A carbocentric cult has already destoyed the world (Hey, I don’t have to dignify your earth rape by acknowledging that question)

    By skipping between these worlds, There are no costs, no job losses, no hardship and a nice fuzzy feeling at the end of it.

    Ok, that might not work either. I think we could go for the community approach and mail out information packs. Tick all the boxes correctly and you get a nice black shirt and “Certified planetologist” badge and bumber sticker sent out to you in the mail.