CO2 concentrations

We start with the fact that carbon dioxide concentrations are rising.
Figure 1.4 shows measurements of the CO2 concentration in the air from
the year 1000AD to the present. Some “sceptics” have asserted that the re-
cent increase in CO2 concentration is a natural phenomenon. Does “scep-
tic” mean “a person who has not even glanced at the data”? Don’t you
think, just possibly, something may have happened between 1800AD and
2000AD? Something that was not part of the natural processes present in
the preceding thousand years?

Something did happen, and it was called the Industrial Revolution.
I’ve marked on the graph the year 1769, in which James Watt patented
his steam engine. While the first practical steam engine was invented in
1698, Watt’s more efficient steam engine really got the Industrial Revolu-
tion going. One of the steam engine’s main applications was the pumping
of water out of coal mines. Figure 1.5 shows what happened to British
coal production from 1769 onwards. The figure displays coal production
in units of billions of tons of CO2 released when the coal was burned.
In 1800, coal was used to make iron, to make ships, to heat buildings,
to power locomotives and other machinery, and of course to power the
pumps that enabled still more coal to be scraped up from inside the hills
of England and Wales. Britain was terribly well endowed with coal: when
the Revolution started, the amount of carbon sitting in coal under Britain
was roughly the same as the amount sitting in oil under Saudi Arabia.

In the 30 years from 1769 to 1800, Britain’s annual coal production
doubled. After another 30 years (1830), it had doubled again. The next
doubling of production-rate happened within 20 years (1850), and another

Figure 1.4. Carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations (in parts per million) for the last 1100 years, measured from air trapped in ice cores (up to 1977) and directly in Hawaii (from 1958 onwards).

I think something new may have happened between 1800 AD and 2000 AD. I’ve marked the year 1769, in which James Watt patented his steam engine. (The first practical steam engine was invented 70 years earlier in 1698, but Watt’s was much more efficient.)

Figure 1.5. The history of UK coal production and world coal production from 1600 to 1910. Production rates are shown in billions of tons of CO2 – an incomprehensible unit, yes, but don’t worry: we’ll personalize it shortly.