How Much CO2 Would a Nuclear War Emit?
Image courtesy of Wired
The smallest possible regional nuclear war would unleash around 700 million tons of carbon dioxide—about as much as a country like England emits every year. The stat comes from a new paper called "Review of solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security" by Marc Z. Jacobson, a professor of environmental engineering at Stanford. The piece led the British newspaper the Guardian to wonder about the potential carbon footprint of nuclear war. And thus, we head to (hopefully) hypothetical alley to take a look at some of the possible results of a nuclear conflict.The Carbon Footprint of Nuclear WarThe 700 million tons (690, to be accurate) of carbon emitted comes from the smallest possible projected conflict—"using just a thousandth of the weaponry of a full-scale nuclear war."
The small nuclear war would also send around 313 million tons of soot into the atmosphere and would probably kill around 17 million people, according to the Guardian.
And how does one calculate the carbon footprint of nuclear war? Good question. According to the Guardian, it goes something like this: He calculated the emissions by totaling up
...the burn rate and carbon content of the fabric of our cities. Materials have the following carbon contents: plastics, 38–92%; tires and other rubbers, 59–91%; synthetic fibers, 63–86%; woody biomass, 41–45%; charcoal, 71%; asphalt, 80%; steel, 0.05–2%. We approximate roughly the carbon content of all combustible material in a city as 40–60%.
Okay, fine. Even the smallest nuclear conflict would be one hell of a mess. So why the hypothetical in the first place?
The purpose of the paper is to compare the total human and environmental costs of a wide range of different power sources, from solar and wind to nuclear and biofuels. One of the side-effects of nuclear power, the report argues, is an increased risk of nuclear war: "Because the production of nuclear weapons material is occurring only in countries that have developed civilian nuclear energy programs, the risk of a limited nuclear exchange between countries or the detonation of a nuclear device by terrorists has increased due to the dissemination of nuclear energy facilities worldwide.
Needless to say, Jacobson is no vocal proponent of nuclear power. It also should be noted that the primary focus of the paper is not this doomsday scenario, but a more general look at climate change, energy, and pollution.