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You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead!

Good carbon Bad carbon

So, let’s be clear right at the outset, carbon isn’t the evil force that will rain destruction on us all that news headlines would suggest. Really!

Carbon is all around us doing great things, including being the key component of my favourite bike, in clothes, food in the form of carbohydrates and, of course the doing bit of pencils. Graphene, a form of carbon only discovered in 2004 at Manchester University, presents amazing possibilities for a huge range of new and emerging technologies. Indeed, you and I, ourselves, are 18% carbon. Being organic, as all plants and animals are, means being made up of carbon. So, carbon, by default isn’t necessarily the enemy.

The bad versions of carbon are the likes of carbon dioxide (beer and champagne bubbles excepted), methane or various halocarbon gases. It is these ‘greenhouse gases’ that give rise to climate change through global warming. Weaning ourselves off the sources of these gases is possibly the single greatest challenge facing humanity at the present time.

Chemistry lecture over as that is pretty much the limit of the ‘B’ I got in my chemistry O level. What I am interested in is what we do to tackle these greenhouse gases or, more challengingly, what the impact of those measures might be on us as a society.

The current significant levels of global lockdown have given us a taste of what a world where gas emissions (including another airborne scourge, fine particulates that cause a range of illnesses such respiratory and cardio-vascular disease) are significantly reduced could be like. Many of us have commented on the freshness of the air and the refreshing absence of contrails from planes drawing lattices in the sky. However, studies during the lockdown period, whilst showing reductions of 10-15% in atmospheric CO2 as a result of significantly reduced road traffic, are absolutely nowhere near the overall levels of reductions we need to achieve to halt climate change. When you think of the current level of upheaval, that is a stark indication of the extent of changes that await us still, even as we emerge from Covid lockdown.

As a natural optimist and a great believer in the power of science, I am of the view that new technological solutions will emerge that may make carbon sequestration or other technologies a potential long-term contributor to the solution. As a pragmatist, I recognise that this is unlikely to be deliverable within the kind of timescale that stops us falling over the impending tipping point where the impacts of climate change will reach far and wide with consequences for billions of people across the globe.

Almost every aspect of our existence will be impacted by the changes necessary to our lives, in a first world country, where we are used to cheap and plentiful food regardless of the season, unlimited travel (subject to the depth of your pockets) and a rather regrettably casual attitude to the disposability of so much of what surrounds us. However, if the current crisis has shown one thing (at which point, I must acknowledge that for so many people and families this has been a deeply traumatic and difficult time and for those who have lost loved ones, jobs or personal health it will have impacts that last for years), a period where what we take for granted is taken away, has not proved to be the end of the world. Indeed, there may be many very positive upsides emerging from the dramatic catalytic effect of enforced societal change.

This is a scene setter for a series of related pieces to follow. Given the fundamental breadth and depth of this topic, it will cover planes, trains and automobiles, houses, offices, working, eating, shopping and living. They won’t be heavy technical reads, rather longer on anecdotes and speculation. I hope, if nothing else, you might find them stimulating or thought provoking.