Carbon Dioxide Net Benefits and True “Social Cost”

According to Paul C. “Chip” Knappenberger, Assistant Director for the Center for the Study of Science at the CATO Institute, “The Obama administration’s latest, greatest weapon to prosecute its war on global warming is something called the “’social cost of carbon'” (Obama’s, 1).  This is not new rhetoric for the administration as in May during a speech the social cost of Carbon was $25 of future external costs for every ton of emissions today.  This supposes that CO2 emissions now are having a direct cost in the near future to citizens.  Oddly enough, within 5 months the social cost had dramatically increased over 50 percent to $40.00 in the future as he mentioned in a speech this October.  “But as its name implies, the government’s accounting of the social cost of carbon focuses almost entirely on conjured “costs” while ignoring proven “benefits” of carbon dioxide emissions,” says Knappenberger.  These “conjured” costs have become the administrations mainstay argument for progressing the environmental agenda they have pursued so readily.   Therefore,  “any new proposed regulation viewed as reducing future carbon dioxide emissions gets a cost credit for each ton of reduced emissions equivalent to the value of the social cost of carbon. That credit is then used to offset the true costs” (Knappenberger 1).  For example, capping power plant production today will consequently save money in the future.    

What Knappenberger finds troublesome about this method of regulation is the fact science directly disputes this claim and as a result environmental regulations should not be based on these faulty conclusions.  The author’s perspective derives from the study; The Positive Externalities of Carbon Dioxide: Estimating the Monetary Benefits of Rising Atmospheric CO2 Concentrations on Global Food Production done by The Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, in order to support his claims.

In this peer-reviewed scientific study, “it determines Numerous studies conducted on hundreds of different plant species testify to the very real and measurable growth-enhancing, water-saving, and stress-alleviating advantages that elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations bestow upon Earth’s plants (Idso and Singer, 2009; Idso and Idso, 2011)” (CO2science.org).  In essence, nearly everything on planet earth is a derived from and/or consists of Carbon Dioxide.  It is a primary food source for plant-material hitherto nearly every breathing thing on earth.  Since this is the case, the more CO2 there is in the air the better plants grow, “as has been demonstrated in literally thousands of laboratory and field experiments (Idso and Singer, 2009)” (CO2science.org).  

The study goes on to cite numerous studies dating back to the beginning of the 19th century when “de Saussure showed that peas exposed to high CO2 concentrations grew better than control plants in ambient air” (CO2science.org).  Furthermore a study in the 1980’s displays that, at the International Conference on Rising Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Plant Productivity, it was concluded that a doubling of the air’s CO2 concentration would likely lead to a 50% increase in photosynthesis in C3 plants, a doubling of water use efficiency in both C3 and C4plants, significant increases in biological nitrogen fixation in almost all biological systems, and an increase in the ability of plants to adapt to a variety of environmental stresses” (Lemon, 1983).  Increased CO2 levels has vast and important beneficial consequences for our biosphere that if one were to watch media portrayal of the matter, one would not gain insight too.  This is precisely why a scientists have once again tested the hypotheses with modern technology.

Cunniff et al. designed “a controlled environment experiment using five modern-day representatives of wild C4 crop progenitors, all ‘founder crops’ from a variety of independent centers,” which were grown individually in growth chambers maintained at atmospheric CO2 concentrations of 180, 280 and 380 ppm, characteristic of glacial, post-glacial and modern times, respectively. The results revealed that the 100-ppm increase in CO2 from glacial to postglacial levels (180 to 280 ppm) “caused a significant gain in vegetative biomass of up to 40%,” together with “a reduction in the transpiration rate via decreases in stomatal conductance of ~35%,” which led to “a 70% increase in water use efficiency, and a much greater productivity potential in water-limited conditions.”

 

In all, this study proved the hypotheses to be correct.  SO what does this have to do with the “social cost” of CO2 emissions?  

The arguments weakness in light of these studies is that it is primarily based on monetary frugality and how decisions now will save the country funds in the future.  If it was based on morality the argument against the decisions would be different.  For instance, the “conjured” social cost of CO2 emissions is $40 yet the increased food production offsets those costs to point of being negative because, these “key physiological changes could have greatly enhanced the productivity of wild crop progenitors after deglaciation … improving the productivity and survival of these wild C4 crop progenitors in early agricultural systems” (CO2science.org).  

Below, is the calculated future monetary benefit (in 2009-2011 USD) from increasing CO2 levels in the biosphere:

This study is interesting because because it completely blunts the monetary argument against CO2 emissions and actually lends a new perspective from the narrow portrayal of the matter in the media and pop culture.  I think we must ask the questions of net benefit of actions and then evaluate.  Much too often it seems to me that the negative side wins and if we want a more optimistic and positive future and media re-evaluating important aspects like this is crucial.

A link to the study:

http://www.co2science.org/education/reports/co2benefits/biosphericbenefit.php

A Link to the article:

http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/obamas-social-cost-carbon-odds-science

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