News Release

Carbon dioxide through the ages: from wild spirit to climate culprit

Everything you always wanted to know about the greenhouse gas in new book

Book Announcement

Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research

Writer Han Dolman

image: Writer Han Dolman on the Dutch Wadden island Texel in front of the NIOZ building view more 

Credit: Anneke Hymmen

Everything you always wanted to know about carbon dioxide. In this book, NHan Dolman meticulously traces the history of the most important greenhouse gas, from its discovery in 1600, to the problems the global community now faces with this ‘wild spirit’.  Dolman is director of the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ).

When Flemish physician Jean Baptista van Helmont burnt a neatly measured amount of coal in the year 1600, he was left with only a tiny bit of ash. The rest blew into the air like, what he called, a spiritus silvestris, or ‘wild spirit’. Although at that time he was not yet able to capture and precisely analyze the gas, van Helmont is considered to be the first to identify carbon dioxide. This history marks the beginning of NIOZ director Han Dolman's new book, Carbon dioxide through the ages, From wild spirit to climate culprit (Oxford University Press). 

Historical greenhouse

Not only the discovery of carbon dioxide goes way back. The notion that this gas can retain solar heat and thus keep the earth pleasantly warm and livable, also dates back to the nineteenth century. In 1856, American scientist and women's rights activist Eunice Foote was the first to see how CO2 in her laboratory retained solar heat from infrared radiation. In 1896, the Swede Svante Arrhenius also linked the regular occurrence of ice ages in history to the content of CO2 in the atmosphere. The ‘greenhouse effect’ must thus be considered as known for more than a century. Not much later, the link between the burning of fossil fuels and the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere was also discovered, Dolman writes in his book.


Late sense of urgency

Yet, it took another century or so before any sense of urgency was added. Dolman marks the UN climate conference in Paris, in 2015 as a tipping point. It was not until that conference that enough policymakers saw the urgency of doing something about the exceedingly large emissions of carbon dioxide, which are wrapping around us like a blanket, too warm.

That sense of urgency has hardly translated yet into actual action. The direct link between the CO2 content of the atmosphere and the earth's average temperature still allows emissions of about one hundred gigatons of CO2 if we want to limit the rise in temperature to one and a half degree. At the rate at which we are burning today, that point will be reached within ten years.


CO2 cycles

In his book, Dolman describes not only the history of CO2 and greenhouse science, but also the carbon cycles in both the dead and living nature; from the emission of the greenhouse gas from volcanoes to the weathering of rocks, which reabsorbs CO2, and the storage of the greenhouse gas in trees and other biomass. The leading role of the oceans in absorbing carbon dioxide is also discussed in detail. In doing so, the book also provides the ingredients for much-needed action. Limiting the enhanced greenhouse effect is no longer possible without actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Dolman foresees an important role for ocean science there.

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