The Carbon Dioxide Word Game

Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2017



Image licensed from Shutterstock


Young adults in Canada today have grown up during a period when educational standards are significantly different from those of previous generations, and “environmental awareness”, was often included as a formal or informal part of the curriculum. Yet, misconceptions abound. I was reminded of this the other day when a young woman I met expressed concern about how carbon dioxide was harming air quality and people’s health. Even the government, after all, calls carbon dioxide “pollution”.


In the interests of clarity, therefore, I thought I would offer some hard information that people might find good to have.


In brief, carbon dioxide does not harm air quality.


Visualization of carbon dioxide (CO2) molecule

Carbon dioxide is a colourless, odourless, tasteless gas found naturally in the earth’s atmosphere. It is produced by natural sources like volcanoes, hot springs and geysers, people and animals (including fish), decay of organic materials, the combustion (i.e. burning) of fossil fuels, and as a by-product of some industrial processes like baking and brewing. Plants and algae use light to photosynthesize a compound called carbohydrate from carbon dioxide and water. Carbon dioxide is the primary source of carbon life; in other words, without carbon dioxide, there would be no life on earth.

image-170842-web 4 part soot

Image of various particulate matter. “Soot” (upper left hand image) is actually ‘”carbon” – a physical remnant of incomplete combustion of burning wood or fossil fuels. It is scientifically inaccurate to refer to the gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), as “carbon” as they are different things.


Carbon dioxide is an essential element in human respiration; people breathe out about 40,000ppm (parts per million) CO2 with every breath.

co2 is not a pollutant supreme court justice

The quality of the air we breathe is sometimes impaired by certain contaminants, and it helps to know what these are. The main ones are:

  • Particulate matter: Particulates are tiny drops of liquid and sold particles, the size of dust or smaller, suspended in the air. They come mainly from agriculture, construction and dust from roads, although various industrial sources play a role. Along with ozone, it is a major component of smog and, at high levels, can harm human health. (Often referred to as PM2.5 or PM10 – meaning Particulate Matter smaller than 2.5 or 10 microns in size.)
  • Airborne-particulate-size-chart

    Chart showing diverse forms of airborne particulate matter according to size range.

    Nitrogen oxide: Nitrogen dioxide is a reddish-brown toxic gas with an irritating smell. Exposure to high levels of nitrogen dioxide can cause breathing problems and reduced lung function, and it is a component of acid rain.

  • Ground-level ozone: Low-level ozone is a colourless gas that is formed through a chemical reaction of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in sunlight. The major sources of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds are transportation, oil and natural gas production, electricity generation, home heating and even the burning of firewood. At high levels, ground-level ozone can cause breathing problems, lung damage, and asthma attacks in humans and damage to sensitive vegetation.
  • Sulphur dioxide: Sulphur dioxide is a colourless and toxic gas that smells bad. It is caused both by natural sources and by human activity, the most important of which are smelting and refining, electricity generation, heating, and oil and gas production and other industries. Sulphur dioxide in high concentrations can contribute to breathing and heart problems, especially among infants and the elderly.
  • Carbon monoxide: Unlike carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide is a highly toxic gas that is caused by the incomplete burning of oil, natural gas and coal. High levels of carbon monoxide can cause dizziness, unconsciousness, and even death.



AirPollutantEmissions_Nat_EN envir can 1990 to 2015

Environment Canada chart shows decline in noxious emissions from 1990


So, carbon dioxide does not affect air quality. It is, in effect, plant food. Those who call it air pollution are trying to present carbon dioxide as something it is not, in order to further a political agenda.

Time lapse of plants with different CO2 concentrations:


More resources:

National Air Pollution Surveillance Program (NAPS) – Air quality in Canada is consistently monitored: “Today there are 286 sites in 203 communities located in every province and territory.” Provinces require reporting from industrial emitters at regular intervals; those who exceed air quality standards can be fined.

Canada-wide, the GEM-MACH modelling system forecasts air quality based on diverse emissions input data including daily satellite data.

YourEnvironment – 100 year temperature data, air quality emissions and water quality are available for most communities in Canada at:

Mother Nature also creates many air pollutants – including wildfire smoke, dust, pollens, spores and molds.  Aerobiology Research Labs provides monitoring and data for most locations across Canada (i.e. daily weather reports often include pollen counts) 

A plain language report by Dr. Thoenes, Emeritus Professor of Chemical Engineering, Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands, on his view of carbon dioxide and climate change:

Please help Friends of Science Society continue to provide factual information on climate science and energy policies.  Become a Member or Donate now. Click on this link:  


  1. Jeff Green

    In Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency (in 2007), the US Supreme Court held that the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority to regulate tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases. Two years after the Supreme Court ruling, in 2009 the EPA issued an endangerment finding concluding that

    “greenhouse gases in the atmosphere may reasonably be anticipated both to endanger public health and to endanger public welfare….The major assessments by the U.S. Global Climate Research Program (USGCRP), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the National Research Council (NRC) serve as the primary scientific basis supporting the Administrator’s endangerment finding.”

    • Bob Lyman

      My article was intended to show the wide difference between carbon dioxide and the criteria air contaminants that affect local air quality.

      It is true that the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 2007 decision, upheld the views of a number of U.S. states and environmentalist organizations that (a) the petitioners had standing on the issue of whether EPA must regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and (b) carbon dioxide is an “air pollutant” causing “air pollution” as defined by the U.S. Clean Air Act. The Clean Air Act, it should be noted, has a very broad definition of what constitutes an air pollutant; it is “any air pollution agent or combination of such agents … which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air.” The Court decided that the states had standing, ignoring the dissenting view of Chief Justice Roberts that the alleged injury (i.e. loss of land because of rising sea levels) is speculative and without adequate scientific support.

      On remand, (under the Obama Administration) the EPA found that six greenhouse gases “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health and to endanger public welfare.” This was upheld by the U.S Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court declined to override the Court of Appeals.

      The endangerment finding was based almost exclusively on the 2009 publication Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, published by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). That publication was a summary of 21 synthesis reports previously published by the USGCRP that are, in fact, unrepresentative of the larger body of scientific research on the topic of anthropogenic climate change, and ignore the more recent evidence. Subsequent public reviews of the EPA’s methodology done by the Institute for Trade, Standards and Sustainable Development showed that the EPA ignored its own requirements for peer review of the science upon which its decisions were based. In 2011, EPA’s Inspector General found that the agency broke the law in its preparation of the endangerment finding because of its failure to perform adequate peer review.

      There have been a number of subsequent attempts to terminate the endangerment finding that have been frustrated by the liberal majority on the U.S. Supreme Court. The Trump Administration is preparing the ground for another challenge that may be more successful.

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