A Free-Market Energy Blog

The Positive Social Benefits of Carbon Dioxide

By Viv Forbes -- October 24, 2013

“The very real positive externality of inadvertent atmospheric CO2 enrichment must be considered in all studies examining the SCC [social cost of carbon].”

– Craig Idso, “The Positive Externalities of Carbon Dioxide: Estimating the Monetary Benefits of Rising Atmospheric CO2 Concentrations on Global Good Production.” Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change (October 2013).

The Carbon Sense Coalition has accused those waging a war on carbon dioxide of being “anti-green.” Why? Because CO2 is the gas of life, feeding every green plant, producing food for every animal and in the process releasing oxygen, another gas of life, into the atmosphere.

A recent study in Remote Sensing, Measuring and Modeling Global Vegetation Growth: 1982–2009) notes that data from remote sensing devices show significant increase in annual vegetation growth during the last three decades.

They also report that CO2 fertilization is more important than climate variation in determining the magnitude of the vegetation growth. In its words:

The CO2 fertilization effect of the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere by mankind’s burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, gas and oil, is beginning to assume its vaulted position of being a tremendous boon to the biosphere, as all of humanity and the entirety of the world’s animal life depend ultimately upon having a sufficient supply of plant life to sustain themselves.

Other Voices

Marlo Lewis of the Competitive Enterprise Institute recently wrote in “Social Cost of Carbon: Do We Monetary Benefits of CO2 Emissions Outweigh the Costs?:

Climate campaigners increasingly invoke the concept of the “social cost of carbon” to justify carbon taxes, mandatory production quota for renewable electricity, and other policies to suppress fossil-fuel consumption…. [However,] carbon’s alleged social cost is highly subjective, inferred from speculative assessments of climate sensitivity, how global warming will affect weather patterns, how climate changes will affect economic activity, and how adaptive capabilities will develop as climate changes.

Writing in Forbes, Robert Bradley wrote:

Problem is, “social cost” has innumerable computable answers depending on assumptions. It is a garbage-in, garbage-out exercise because CO2, the green greenhouse gas, also called the gas of life, is a “social benefit” upon closer examination. Scientists have categorized 55 positive externalities to CO2 releases in the biosphere.

The whole calculation is an ivory tower plaything, not a quantifiable real-world concept, that many economists scoff at.

Economist Robert Murphy of the Institute for Energy Research has testified before Congress on the pernicious, subjects social cost of carbon. Ronald Bailey, science writer at Reason magazine  has complained about “the delusions of precision promised by the computer models.”

More Greening Needed, Ahead

Current levels of carbon dioxide are well below optimal levels for plants, so all true environmentalists should welcome any increase – all life would benefit if the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere was triple current levels.

The biosphere always flourishes during the recurring but short warm eras on Earth. Ice ages are the times of extinctions. As oceans warm, carbon dioxide is expelled and water evaporates. Warmth, and more moisture and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere provide ideal growing conditions for the green world.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is replenished mainly from warming oceans but also from termites, volcanoes and exhaling animals, assisted by about a 3% contribution from burning carbon fuels.

No rational person could define carbon dioxide as “pollution”. It is a harmless, non-toxic, colorless natural gas that is the essential food for all plants which then produce food and oxygen for all animals.

Almost everything in coal was derived from plant material so burning it is no more dangerous than burning wood. Both will suffocate you if burnt in a confined space, but when dispersed in the vast atmosphere their emissions are beneficial plant fertilizers.

Naturally we should minimize real pollution of land, atmosphere and oceans.

Fossil Fuels Eliminate Pollution

Everything that man does could be seen to create some “pollution”. But very little pollution comes from modern coal-burning power stations. Modern power stations have extensive filtration equipment which ensures that the exhaust gases are harmless natural gases already present in the atmosphere – nitrogen, water vapor and carbon dioxide – all essential to sustaining life on Earth.

The smogs of Asia are not caused by burning washed coal in modern power stations. They are caused by burning everything else, usually in dirty open fires.

They burn cow dung, wood, cardboard, plastic, paper, recycled oil, tires, dirty coal, kerosene – anything available that will cook food, provide warmth/light or deter mosquitoes. Forest fires in Indonesia, cremations in India and dust from the massive Gobi desert all add to Asian air pollution. As do old worn-out boilers, furnaces, engines and obsolete power stations which can spew unfiltered exhaust gases, ash, soot and unburnt fuel into the air.

These are what cause real air pollution – carbon dioxide does not.

Fifty years ago, the suffocating smogs of London and Pittsburgh were solved by:

  • bans on open fires and dirty furnaces, plus
  • clean coal-fired electricity, and
  • clean-burning piped coal gas.

The same solution will banish most Asian smogs today.


A shorter version of this post was published at the Carbon Sense Coalition website.


  1. Ed Reid  

    We do not even KNOW that the “social cost of carbon” is non-zero, no less whether it is positive or negative and to what extent.

    US EPA does not even pretend to analyze the social benefits.


  2. Andrew  

    Well of course they don’t, they statutorily don’t even care if the cost of regulation exceeds it’s benefits, why would they care if there can’t be net benefits to regulation even in principle?


  3. Wayne Lusvardi  

    The problem with regulatory environmental science is that it leaves out the environment. Any substance, CO2, asbestos, radon, perchlorate, nitrous oxide, sulphuric oxide, plain old H2O, is toxic is concentrated in a harmful dosage. What concentrates any substance to make it toxic? An environmental trap, whether that be a topographical smog basin trap, and underground aquifer, an air tight energy efficient building, an automobile with circulating air conditioner, etc. What makes any substance toxic is its environment. But regulatory scientists put the emphasis on the cup half full of toxic substances instead of the cup itself.

    Texas emits 679,718,000 tons of CO2 per year with a population of 25 million while California emits 360,000,000 tons of CO2 with a population of 37 million. But California has nine cities in the top 20 cities with the highest air pollution while Texas only has 2 cities on the list. Why? Answer: Because California’s topographic is comprised of 9 air basins or smog traps. I will repeat myself: what normative government environmental science does is leave out the environment — the trap — that makes for a toxic dosage of anything. The solution to pollution is dilution. So diverting population growth and building power plants in the 9 air trap basins in California is self-defeating public policy. If California relocated its conventional coastal power plants to inland areas outside the huge Central Valley basin, it might be able to accomplish all its pollution reduction goals without having to shift to costly, redundant, and highly unreliable green power. But many California cities don’t want to give up the lucrative utility taxes that municipal water and power departments generate for cities. And Investor-Owned electric utilities want to locate power plants near industrial/population centers to reduced transmission costs. So California’s energy and pollution policies are self-defeating and run against the FIRST LAW OF ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE: THE DOSAGE MAKES THE POISON; AND THE ENVIRONMENTAL TRAP DETERMINES THE DOSAGE.


  4. Cody S  

    Universities, governments and the U.N. aren’t writing a lot of grants to study the beneficial externalities of carbon emissions, because they are terrified that the trillions of dollars they plan to fling at pet projects based solely on negative-externality studies might fall into jeopardy.


  5. Eddie Devere  

    I can think of a lot of benefits to me if I steal your money, but that doesn’t make it ethically or morally right.
    Sure, there might be some benefits to some plant species from higher CO2 levels in places that have lots of water. There will even be some people who benefit from warmer winters (though, not ski resorts.)
    However. the point is that there will be a lot of people who will be harmed if CO2 concentrations reach 600 ppm or more in the atmosphere (due to higher sea levels and higher summer temperatures.) New Orleans, Shanghai, The Netherlands, and coastal Vietnam are at risk from higher sea levels due to ice melting in the Arctic, which is due to higher temperatures caused by man-made emissions of CO2 at rates faster than natural processes can remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Because there is very little water vapor in the atmosphere in the Arctic to compete with CO2 as a greenhouse, the Arctic has seen the largest rise in temperature due to man-made increases in CO2 from 280 ppm to 400 ppm.

    We don’t have the right to harm some people, even though others will benefit. True libertarians follow the rule of law. And the purpose of the law is to prevent my actions from harming others, even if I gain or others gain.

    As such, I’ve created a summary of why we need to prevent global CO2 emissions from reaching above ~600 ppm (but in a way that doesn’t destroy our economy along the way.)


    • rbradley  


      Your harms assumes that the science behind it is solid–but climate science is very soft and politicized at present.

      You proceed as if ‘analytic failure’ and ‘government failure’ were not worth thinking about. They are both sizeable–and must be compared to any alleged ‘market failure’ before going resorting to government planning.

      If CO2 policy harms people who are otherwise innocent to the harms and benefits of CO2 (say blocking fossil fuels for more costly, less reliable wind or on-grid solar), can they use your argument to file a lawsuit?

      And stop using “we”–just go ahead and say ‘world government’ If you are a ‘libertarian’ then I guess just about anything can be anything.


  6. Wayne Lusvardi  

    Mr. Devere
    Thank you for the opportunity to dialogue and for disclosing your real name and finding your blog on physics and engineering.

    One of the problems with the science behind renewable energy is that it isn’t science. Science entails the capability to falsify a hypothesis. You can’t falsify the unknowable future based on a model no matter how mathematical precision the model has. None of the climate change models I have read about so far have been able to predict the past, let alone the future.

    I am influenced by historian of science Thomas Kuhn who observed that science relies on paradigms because data is too complex and often too self-contradictory. The paradigm of climate change is based on countercultural notions that industrialization is bad. Various thinkers have had this notion including Karl Marx, Malthus, and others. The debate about climate change is an issue for the sociology of knowledge not strict science. Those in the new Knowledge Class of regulatory scientists, climate change modelers, environmental sciences, journalists, social workers, psychologists, educators, etc. believe in climate change as a future threat to existence just as centuries ago religious false prophets predicted apocalyptic change. Those in the old Business Class of retired scientists not dependent on government grants any longer, meteorologists, scientists working for independent think tanks, geologists working for oil companies, and those in industries that are dependent on petroleum to produce their products are skeptical of the climatologists. The problem is sociological more than it is scientific. Modeling is not science because it can’t falsify a hypothesis. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about a Military-Industrial Complex. What has evolved is an Environmental-Government Complex that sometimes co-opts Industry in crony-capitalists ventures. I appreciate your blog which is a mixture of science and politics. But I am sorry to say that I do not find most climate change science to be science at all. Nonetheless, I am agnostic about climate change. If someone can prove it to me I will listen. Over 100 years ago those industrialist who built out the Southwestern U.S. with a system of dams and reservoirs were the real progenitors of climate change science. They knew that precipitation came in cycles (we now call the Pacific Decadal Oscillation) and built a network of dams so that water could be shifted around the region to build modern civilization. That regional system of water infrastructure still works to mitigate the impacts of “climate change.” And it delivers clean, cheap hydropower as well.



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