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Cooling the planet without carbon taxing or trading: is water the elephant in the room?

By Shann Turnbull - posted Tuesday, 9 February 2010


Australia could have an international competitive advantage in its ability to cool the planet and increase its economic growth. So great is Australia’s endowment of natural and intellectual resources that we could provide both world leadership and practical assistance to developing countries. Cooling the planet requires reforestation: as trees release bacteria, these provide the nuclei for water droplets that in turn assist in clearing heat hazes and pollutants; facilitate radiant cooling; and condense water vapour to form clouds that shade the earth and precipitate rain.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) did not consider cloud and water processes as being affected by humans through deforestation. Deforestation has been occurring for 10,000 years, most of it since the beginning of the industrial revolution. This may explain why the IPCC reports that global warming was detected before significant increases in atmospheric CO2 were noted. Deforestation could also explain why Southern Australia is becoming more arid with more frequent and deeper droughts.

While there is much more to know, there are scientists who understand how trees breathe out bacteria which provide nuclei to condense warming heat hazes and precipitate moisture in the atmosphere to form water droplets and reflective clouds. The bacterium also precipitates dust and other pollutants to clear the air to allow the earth to cool.

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The IPCC data reveals that clouds are many more times more important than CO2 in global warming. Their data also shows that human created pollutants in the atmosphere are almost as great as natural pollutants. However, the IPCC did not consider pollution as a way humans might have affected global temperatures. What is now required is for scientists with a holistic perspective to join the dots between diverse scientific disciplines in which Australia excels.

Scientists generally accept that H2O is responsible for more than 90 per cent of the heat dynamics of the planet while CO2 is responsible for less than 5 per cent. The residual gases are methane, nitrous oxide and industrial gases.

Also accepted is that water is by far the most dominant natural greenhouse gas responsible for heating the planet to its current comfort level of 15C from -18C: a change of 33C.

Water molecules can absorb, carry and radiate eight times the heat of CO2 molecules. The number of H2O molecules in the atmosphere can range from 2,000 to 40,000 parts per million compared with the 389 parts per million of CO2. This makes H2O substantially more potent in affecting the temperature of our planet. In addition water covers 71 per cent of the planet’s surface while ice covers another 2 per cent.

Water is the elephant in the room that the IPCC has ignored as a variable affected by humans.

Trees and other plants have a pivotal role in controlling the composition of the atmosphere, rain and perhaps global temperatures. Through photosynthesis plants use the energy of the sun to release oxygen from CO2. Photosynthesis manufactures sugars that provide the building material for plants. The sugars feed the special bacteria that act as a catalyst in changing the state and behaviour of the atmosphere.

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There are a number of locations in the world where changes in rainfall have been observed with changes in vegetation because forests can create their own rainfall. In the Amazon basin water is circulated seven times between the forest and the atmosphere before it drains away to the sea.

Over millions of years plants have manufactured oxygen to allow animals to evolve. Through natural processes plants have bio-sequestered vast tons of carbon including 10,000 billions tonnes of carbon as methane hydrates on the sea floor, 5,000 billion tonnes in known reserves of coal, oil and gas, 3,000 billion tones in frozen tundra, 1,500 billion tonnes in the soil and only 750 billion tonnes remain in living plants. As result of all this sequestration, only 750 billion tonnes of carbon remain in the atmosphere. Trees and deep rooted grasses can sequester carbon into the soil - around the same amount as they contain.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation reported in 1983 that Australian soils had carbon content in the mid 19th century in excess of 10 per cent. Today, the level of carbon has been reduced by inappropriate land management practices to 0.5 per cent. With appropriate land management practices up to 20 tonnes of stable soil carbon per hectare per year can be sequestered. Carbon rich soils can hold more water and retain it longer to make farming more resilient and profitable.

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Acknowledgement for technical information is given to former CSIRO scientist, Walter Jehne, a director of Healthy Soils Australia.



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About the Author

Dr Shann Turnbull BSc (Melb); MBA (Harvard) is the Principal of the International Institute for Self-governance based in Sydney and a co-founding member of the Sustainable Money Working Group established in the UK. He is a founding life Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, Senior Fellow of the Financial Services Institute of Australasia, Fellow of the Governance Institute of Australia and Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management. He co-authored in 1975 the first course in the world to provide company directors an educational qualification and wrote Democratising the Wealth of Nations. His bibliography reveals he is a prolific author on reforming the theories and practices of capitalism.

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