Research on carbon-cycle feedbacks suggests we have less wiggle room to turn the climate ship around.
(First published at Corporate Knights on July 7, 2015.)
Illustration by Yarek Waszul
The latest research suggests that natural sinks of carbon on land may be slowing or even turning into sources, creating climate consequences potentially worse than first thought.
Nature has provided humans with a buffer against the worst effects of our carbon pollution. Since 1750, we have emitted about 580 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests and making cement. If those emissions had simply accumulated in the air, the concentration of carbon dioxide would have increased from 280 parts per million (ppm), as it was before the Industrial Revolution, to about 550 ppm today. Instead, we currently measure around 400 ppm, which is still a whopping 40 per cent above the planet’s pre-industrial atmosphere, but much less than a doubling.
Some 60 per cent of our emissions have been taken up in natural sinks by, in roughly equal parts, dissolving into the ocean and by being taken up by plants growing faster on land. Were it not for these natural carbon sinks, we would by now be much deeper into dangerous climate change.
As we continue to burn fossil fuels, our climate troubles will become worse should those sinks start to falter. And the outlook will be worse still if those sinks turn into sources of carbon.
One of my pastimes is downloading data and playing around with it on Excel. I’m not kidding myself that doing this means anything in terms of original research, but I do find that I learn quite a lot about the particularities of the data and about the science in general by doing some simple calculations and graphing the numbers. There’s even occasionally a small feeling of discovery, a bit like the kind that you experience when you follow a well-trodden path in the mountains for the first time:
We were not pioneers ourselves, but we journeyed over old trails that were new to us, and with hearts open. Who shall distinguish? J. Monroe Thorington
Anyway, I downloaded some historical emissions data from the CDIAC site and played around with it. To repeat, there’s nothing new to science here, but there were a few things that I found that were new to me. First, let’s look at historical emissions of CO2 from man-made sources from 1850 to 2010. Note that for all of these graphs there are no data shown for 2011-2015.
What immediately struck me—something I hadn’t fully appreciated before—was how small oil consumption was before 1950. Both world wars were carried out without huge increases in oil use, despite the massive mobilizations of armies, navies and air forces. You can make out some downward blips in coal consumption for the Great Depression (~1930) and around the end of WW2 (~1945).
It wasn’t until after 1950 that fossil-fuel consumption went nuts. Some people have taken to calling this inflection point The Great Acceleration, there’s more on this later. Continue reading
I gave a poster presentation on December 16th at the 2014 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. The title is: Emissions of Water and Carbon Dioxide from Fossil-Fuel Combustion Contribute Directly to Ocean Mass and Volume Increases.
You can read the abstract here and I have uploaded a pdf of the poster here. There is a picture of the poster below, click on it to make it readable, although you will need to download the pdf to make out some of the fine print.
Originally posted at Skeptical Science
Let’s start with two skill-testing questions:
1. If we stop greenhouse gas emissions, won’t the climate naturally go back to the way it was before?
2. Isn’t there “warming in the pipeline” that will continue to heat up the planet no matter what we do?
The correct answer to both questions is “no”.
Global warming is not reversible but it is stoppable.