for understanding growth. Whereas the ordinary graphs in the ﬁgures on
pages 6 and 7 convey the messages that British and world coal production
grew remarkably, and that British and world population grew remarkably,
the relative growth rates are not evident in these ordinary graphs. The log-
arithmic graphs allow us to compare growth rates. Looking at the slopes
of the population curves, for example, we can see that the world popula-
tion’s growth rate in the last 50 years was a little bigger than the growth
rate of England and Wales in 1800.
From 1769 to 2006, world annual coal production increased 800-fold.
Coal production is still increasing today. Other fossil fuels are being ex-
tracted too – the middle graph of ﬁgure 1.7 shows oil production for ex-
ample – but in terms of CO2 emissions, coal is still king.
The burning of fossil fuels is the principal reason why CO2 concentra-
tions have gone up. This is a fact, but, hang on: I hear a persistent buzzing
noise coming from a bunch of climate-change inactivists. What are they
saying? Here’s Dominic Lawson, a columnist from the Independent:
“The burning of fossil fuels sends about seven gigatons of CO2
per year into the atmosphere, which sounds like a lot. Yet the
biosphere and the oceans send about 1900 gigatons and 36000
gigatons of CO2 per year into the atmosphere – ... one reason
why some of us are sceptical about the emphasis put on the role
of human fuel-burning in the greenhouse gas effect. Reducing
man-made CO 2 emissions is megalomania, exaggerating man’s
signiﬁcance. Politicians can’t change the weather.”
Now I have a lot of time for scepticism, and not everything that sceptics say
is a crock of manure – but irresponsible journalism like Dominic Lawson’s
deserves a good ﬂushing.
The ﬁrst problem with Lawson’s offering is that all three numbers that
he mentions (seven, 1900, and 36000) are wrong! The correct numbers are
26, 440, and 330. Leaving these errors to one side, let’s address Lawson’s
main point, the relative smallness of man-made emissions.
Yes, natural ﬂows of CO2 are larger than the additional ﬂow we switched
on 200 years ago when we started burning fossil fuels in earnest. But it
is terribly misleading to quantify only the large natural ﬂows into the at-
mosphere, failing to mention the almost exactly equal ﬂows out of the
atmosphere back into the biosphere and the oceans. The point is that these
natural ﬂows in and out of the atmosphere have been almost exactly in
balance for millenia. So it’s not relevant at all that these natural ﬂows are
larger than human emissions. The natural ﬂows cancelled themselves out.
So the natural ﬂows, large though they were, left the concentration of CO2
in the atmosphere and ocean constant, over the last few thousand years.
Burning fossil fuels, in contrast, creates a new ﬂow of carbon that, though
small, is not cancelled. Here’s a simple analogy, set in the passport-control
arrivals area of an airport. One thousand passengers arrive per hour, and