文/ 董阳 壮歌德 by Dong Yang and John Coulter


The slogan, “low carbon economy” means more than most people understand.  The uniqueness of carbon is that it exists in nature as atoms bonded to hydrogen, and when that bond is broken and exchanged for a carbon-oxygen bond, some of the bond’s attractive force is no longer needed and “released”.  It is this force that sustains metabolism of life and allows people to act. It has also been used in other carbon-hydrogen bonds to release forces that drive machines. The carbon bond exchange is the driver of national economies.


Direct human activity can be measured by the number of carbon-hydrogen bonds exchanged for carbon-oxygen.  The bonds come from carbohydrates, mainly in the form of bread and rice. Thousands of years ago the rulers of China were able to reckon and to institutionalize that a “person’s mouth”  人口 needed one jin 斤of carbohydrate per day, and that required one mu 亩 of land to catch the sunlight to grow a year’s worth of the carbohydrate.  In modern science, on average, 1 mu of land (667 square meters) receives  5.5 x 1031 photons a year that through photosynthesis convert   2 x 1025 carbon dioxide molecules into carbohydrates, and an average person can consume them, breathing in oxygen to combust and release sufficient bonding forces to live and work.

Besides the digestable carbohydrates the solar photons also convert carbon dioxide and water into cellulose fiber carbohydrates that make trees. This process, still amazing now, was demonstrated by a Dutch chemist in the early seventeenth century when, in a period of 5 years, a 5 kg willow plant grew into a 79 kg tree in the same pot, simply by watering it with no noticeable change in the soil contained in the pot. Carbon dioxide was not understood at that time. Wood fuel, created from photons, carbon dioxide and water, was the world’s major economic driver till overtaken by coal mid nineteenth century.   The fossil fuels have a similar carbon-hydrogen bond and release the force for economic action.

In a practical sense, the carbon bond exchange can be viewed as a currency that drives economic activities and provides a scientific basis for future economic planning in both the public and private sectors.   A study of the US economy serves as a useful example.  Taking 1750 as a starting point, there was no national economy – merely economic activity of villages and small regions of minimal impact.  The two drivers of economic activity were food for human work and firewood for boilers in primitive industry.  With the advent of the steam engine it took another 110 years before coal overtook firewood as the fuel for steam engines.  Another 90 years, petroleum surpassed coal as the largest component of the American economy’s appetite.  10 years later natural gas also overtook coal and even as the economy burgeoned, natural gas stayed more important than coal.

There is an amazing truth that economists were too blind to see in America’s development.  In the Old World, economists began in the eighteenth century with an assumption that the factors of production were land and labor.  The “Labor Theory of Value” was popular. Then as mechanization was introduced, the factors were called land, labor and capital, and large machines supplanted labor’s value.  But with the fresh start in the New World, an original thinking observer could note that the “land” had been there for millennia, and the changes could be monitored simply by tracking the carbon processes – first in farm production and consumption, and the combustion of firewood, then with the fossil fuels.  At the level of atoms, carbon-hydrogen bond attractive force being broken and releasing part of that force as oxygen bonded with carbon is a common denominator – a universal base currency. This is graphed from 1750 to 2015, with the Y axis units denoting 1037 carbon bond exchanges.


fig 2


In Old World economics, fuels are a “consumable” added to the fixed cost of capital equipment.  But derived from the Overview Effect experienced by astronauts observing the Earth objectively, all activity is directly or indirectly traced to the forces at work, farming, mining and building cities and infrastructure.  For the short history of American development, today’s capital equipment was built from yesterday’s activities.  What is there now is the result of 265 years of activity.  Prigogine used the analogy of the industriousness of ants.  An above-ground ant’s nest is a manifestation of the work done by the “ant economy”.  Similarly, astronauts flying over continental USA easily appreciate the urban build-up on the east coast, the carefully tended farmlands of the midwest, and the vacant deserts beyond that.

This perspective is important, not because it records history, but because it focusses sharply on questions of what is planned for the future.  In fact we look at an ants nest and admire the industry that must have been employed but we also do not know if it was knocked down when half built and then rebuilt to its current size.  Looking at modern America as a whole from space, we cannot know of the wasted activity of the Civil War of the eighteen sixties or the environmental damage done in the Dust Bowl of the nineteen thirties.  But where America is now in development, and where it is headed is written in current and forecast fuel plans.

America projects how much fuel it will need ahead from historical fact in 2015 through to the future in 2040.  This can be readily adjusted to also include carbohydrate foods. The reality is that in 2015 coal and oil both constituted 25% of all the carbon-hydrogen combusted. The main fuel was gas, 37%, leaving 13% for non-fossil fuel in the form of organic matter for machinery and carbohydrate foods for humans (including that indirect food for animals then directly transformed into complex C-H bonds in protein).  The question then arises bluntly for policy makers, what changes can be made to optimize the mix in coming years.  It transpires that despite boasting low carbon economy policies, there in the spreadsheets of the government agencies, coal in the United States will still be a major component driving the economy in 2040.  Converting the official data published in BTU (British Thermal Units) coal carbon-hydrogen bonds will rise slightly in 2040.  Commendably, it is projected that natural gas will increase 16% in that period but a major concern is that the pragmatic forecasters see no improvement in the “other” category.

How many carbon bonds with hydrogen are exchanged for bonds with oxygen atoms accounts for the economic activity to be monitored.  In the primitive hunting society chosen in the 1776 Wealth of Nations to demonstrate comparative cost of beaver and deer, only the labor involved (that is, burning carbohydrates) was necessary. Use of capital – a simple tool or complex machinery, requires the forces involved in shaping that tool or manufacturing the machine.  Modern approaches list this embodiment of forces for materials such as bricks and steel, and for machinery such as a wind turbine generator.  The forces exerted by the wind and nature are free to the economy, only the cost of building machinery to harness wind, and water and sun’s photons should enter economic accounts.

Policies for promoting a low carbon economy can include admonishing citizens to turn off the light when not needed but the real implementation is in planning the future. Before accounting in dollars or joules, the base currency has to be carbon atoms bonded to hydrogen that will be taken and be recombined with oxygen.  That means affecting lifestyle, eating and breathing, and efficiently using that carbon bond exchange in all industry and transport.  America now has a long list of cancelled coal-fired power station plans.  Some will be substituted for natural gas as the driver because the simple molecule CH4 is much more efficient and cleaner than complex coal crystalline structures that have a mix of carbon and hydrogen atoms plus unwanted polluting elements.

In line with its climate agreements, China has banned new coal power plants in its three key industrial regions around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, which host one third of its operational coal-fired capacity. Beijing’s planning authority aims to replace its four existing coal plants with gas-fired plants by 2017. On the other hand Japan, facing the crisis of its failed nuclear industry, is planning to commission 41 new coal-powered power plants over the next 10 years.

Resolving these complex global economic problems will be better addressed if all human activity is seen in terms of its carbon basis.  Economic policy makers should see around the world that a low carbon economy has a chance of functioning sustainably within the natural global carbon cycle.  To try to improve economies by admonishing citizens to be “green” has only a small effect. To manage these problems accounting in money, especially trillions “created” by governments, is to dig deeper into debt and a polluted world.  Just like educated people everywhere now understand that we must be conscious of invisible bacteria in order to stay healthy, ordinary citizens need to appreciate the indomitable reality that all activity, even eating and breathing, and up to global GDP, is based on that tiny bond exchange.

: http://www.coulterexergy.com/archives/1630

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