We talk a lot about climate change caused by greenhouse gases, but does anyone remember the Ozone hole and leaded petrol? These were real problems a couple of decades ago. Remarkably, both problems were created in the 1920s by the same man, Thomas Midgley Jr, who first came up with the idea of reducing knocking in car engines by adding Tetraethyl Lead into gasoline. Then he invented CFC gases to replace toxic gases used in early air conditioning and refrigerated systems. Both of these inventions were huge commercial successes, but the side-effects soon became apparent. Midgley himself had to take a year off in the then lead-free Europe to recover from lead poisoning, which affects the lungs and the nervous system. Many of his employees died, became ill or went mad. It is estimated that since leaded petrol was finally banned in the US in 1995, children’s average IQ has risen by several points as levels of lead in their blood have decreased. We are starting to recover from a long slow lead poisoning.
I remember being genuinely worried about the Ozone hole above the Arctic. It was caused by the aerosol in my deodorant spray. At that time, the spray contained CFC’s, which are halogens that have a depleting effect on Ozone, the stratospherically thin wisp of O3 which protects us from harmful ultraviolet rays. Although CFCs are now banned in aerosols, the Ozone layer still has not recovered. The increased UV radiation is estimated to cause thousands of skin cancer cases around the world each year.
Because of his two extremely harmful inventions, Thomas Midgley Jr is thought to be one of the most harmful individuals in the history of our planet.
We now acknowledge the dangers of these products. We try to protect our children from the damage they cause. Leaded petrol and CFCs in aerosols are banned. We have also acknowledged that global warming due to greenhouse gases is a real danger, so we need to use fossil fuel resources more efficiently and eventually, replace them with alternative energy sources.
Looking at the IWR Institute’s global CO2e emission figures for 2011, I can see a trend emerging. Global Carbon Footprint has gone up by 2.5 % to 34 billion tonnes, which was to be expected, and so is the fact that China is on top with almost 9 billion tonnes. China and India are growing fast, and so is their carbon footprint. Out of the top 10, only Germany and Russia have reduced their national carbon footprints since 1990. In the case of Russia, I believe it is at least partially due to decrease in production during most of the 90s, but Germany’s GDP has steadily increased. Most other European countries are also decreasing their total carbon footprint despite growth, albeit it slow in the recent years.
Overall, the trend seems to be that stricter EEA regulations and effective carbon management are starting to show progress towards reducing national carbon footprints despite overall growth. In a previous blog I speculated that at least in the UK a recent drop is caused by rising energy cost, but as an overall European trend over twenty years this must be the result of investment in green energy and better management of fossil energy resources in the industry.
Is this a sign of recovery? Let’s hope so. Perhaps in the next few years we can see similar trends develop in the emerging markets.