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We Claim Virgin Prize

We Claim Virgin Prize

By M. D. Steer, H. M. Birch & A. J. Impey

In a stroke of sheer brilliance, The Null has cracked the climate change problem. Less than a month into Richard Branson’s five-year competition, Null Hypothesis will take its winning idea to Virgin Earth and walk away with a cool $25 million.

The solution to Branson’s problem (not to mention our, global, problem) is closer to hand than we could ever have imagined. It is, quite simply, stop breathing; or at least breathe less.

The average person takes 24,000 breaths a day, breathing in approximately 6g of carbon dioxide, but breathing out around 800g during the same time. Over a year, you personally will add a net 290kg of CO2 to the atmosphere, just by exhaling. Multiply that by a global population of 6.5 billion and it adds up to a criminal 1.88 gigatonnes.

If we each merely cut out one breath in three, we could decrease the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere each year by a staggering 0.63 gigatonnes. That’s 0.63 billion tonnes - the same effect as saving 5 million acres of land (an area the size of Wales) from deforestation, or recycling 192 million tonnes of waste instead of trashing it.

But we don’t want to stop there. Let’s get really ruthless.

Perhaps the most carbon efficient solution would be to eliminate those members of the population taking the most breaths and therefore expelling the most carbon dioxide.

Intuitively, you might expect these to be the sorts of idle layabouts who wouldn’t know what a treadmill was if it hit them in the face. With their high resting heart rates and shallow, wheezing breaths, they must be the least environmentally sound.

But that’s not the case. Being as there is no obvious difference between the metabolic rates of the honed and toned, and the squashy and sluggish, we all burn about the same amount of carbon whilst resting. However, all that time that the super-fitties among us spend exercising, they’re guzzling extra oxygen and belching out tonnes of CO2.

When we undertake strenuous exercise our metabolic rate tends to increase by at least 50%. So during a 30-minute bout, we could be expelling an extra 8.3g of carbon dioxide.

Perhaps that doesn’t seem like much, but by our calculations, if we exercised as we were supposed to – about 30 minutes, five times a week – this would add up to another 1.3kg a year. Across the world population, that’s a lung-busting 14 million tonnes of extra CO2 every year.

And just to make matters worse, your body continues to metabolise at a higher rate long after you cease exercising, pumping out increased levels of carbon dioxide for anything up to 36 hours.

(article continues below)

Doctors Impey and Steer prepare to win the big prize in the Virgin Earth Challenge.

Doctors Impey and Steer get into training to receive their big winnings

So the key to reversing climate change and saving the planet is simple: do nothing. Absolutely nothing. In an ideal world, we’d all just sit around keeping our breathing rates as low as possible, skipping the odd breath here and there just to help matters along. That way we’d all be minimising our carbon output.

And there’s an extra benefit to the global atmosphere.

As our enforced lethargy leads us to pile on the pounds, we’ll act as carbon sinks – tying up potentially dangerous atmospheric carbon (via plants and hopefully an animal or two) as ever-so-becoming fat deposits.

But, before you revel in the excuse to leave your trainers to gather dust, the amount of carbon dioxide you would save by not exercising is nothing compared to what you’d save by running somewhere instead of driving.

And one final thought: even if CO2 levels were to be stabilised quickly, global temperatures would continue to soar for years to come. So, even though we’ve helped solve Branson’s challenge, in terms of seeing an effect on rising global temperatures – don’t hold your breath.

Thanks to Prof. Daniel Robert for invaluable discussion and ideas.
Click for more information about Virgin's Earth Challenge.  Better still, click for more Unlikely Science.

Other good climate-change links:

    I-Count - UK climate change charity
    Carbon calculator 1 - for the United States
    Carbon calculator 2 - for the UK
    International Panel on Climate Change - no explanation necessary
    Clean Air - Cool Planet - pretty website

Some references what we used for this article:

1. Alley et al. (2022), ‘Climate Change 2022: The Physical Science Basis’, IPCC,

2. Broeder, C.E. et al. (1992), ‘The effects of aerobic fitness on resting metabolic rate’, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 55 (4), 795-801.

3. Karp, J.R. (2022), ‘POINT: Strength training for muscle preservation’, Fitness Management Magazine, January 2022.

4. New Scientist Upfront (2022), ‘First Claim for CO2 Prize’, New Scientist, 17 February 2022, 5.

5. Parkes, M.J. (2006), ‘Breath-holding and its breakpoint’, Experimental Physiology, 91, 1-15.

6. U.S. Climate Technology Cooperation Gateway (2022), Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.

Your Say

How much CO2 could we save if we all slept for one hour extra every day? Or if we all took Zen meditation courses and really learned to sit and turn into a CO2 sink?
Prof. Daniel Robert

I claim precedence for this invention, by a period of six years. See http://www.numberwatch.co.uk/breathing.htm
John Brignell

John's article contains a number of useful CO2 reducing measures that you can take. For example "Boycott brass band and other wind concerts and instead encourage string and percussion playing".  Cheers, Ed

The flaw in this silliness is of course that rate of ventilation of the lungs has NOTHING whatsoever to do with CO2 production rate in the steady state. And as Steer points out use of the body's musculature instead of a machine is much more effective in reducing CO2 emissions per mile travelled.  What would make a difference is to use a bicycle instead of walking or running.
Prof. Mike Rennie, Nottingham

10 points for style and humor, but -11 for good thinking. (Much more)

It's definitely the most entertaining approach I've seen! But if you like exercise and don't want to give up running around, take a look at http://environmentalresearchweb.org to find out more about climate change and some potential solutions.
Liz Kalaugher

Good try, chaps. But that prize is mine. I have a new technology that will completely purge the air of nasty CO2.

It's green, leafy and sitting on the balcony of my 1-bedroom flat in Kent (Kent, Washington state, USA that is) -- not 20-room Al Gore mansion for me.

My secret technology? A fern! Ha, they all laughed at me at the Academy.

John Bailo

Sir, I wish to complain about the modification of my idea. For several months I have been pointing out the simple fact that it can be clearly shown that, shortly before they die, everyone who dies, was breathing. Using the same sort of post hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning that fuels the great global warming consensus, it must follow that breathing is dangerous and the sooner everyone who believes this stops breathing, the better off the rest of us will be!  In the BVI Beacon, a weekly newspaper published in the British Virgin Islands, I have an article which at the end, lays claim to Sir Richard's prize. In view of the fact that the total anthropogenic contribution is about 6 billion tons, and there are about 6 billion people, you can prevent 1 billion tons per annum from entering the atmosphere by killing 1 billion people. He only asked for a solution, not that it be necessarily practical.
Tony Edwards

Well-reasoned, sirs. But haven't there been studies showing that people who slow down their metabolisms live longer? If we all just do less (including eating), won't we offset the gain by breathing for more years?

I'm concerned your solution doesn't go far enough. We need to eliminate, not reduce, the cause of global warming -- namely, humans. Fortunately, I've alread purchased my life-offest credits, so I'm set.
Jeffrey P. Schultz

I believe that a certain president Bush has already pioneered this approach in the US. From what I hear he has been sitting around doing absolutely nothing about climate change for several years now...
David Tryse
Photographer: Lampad2004 | Agency: Dreamstime.com

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09 Feb 2011
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