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Cutting carbon pollution is the key to curbing global warming

Posted on 5 December 2014 by John Abraham

Not all greenhouse gases are created equal. If we want to limit the temperature rise of the Earth, we really need to focus on the long-lasting greenhouse gases. They’re the ones that matter, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Joeri Rogelj and his colleagues.

Most of us already know this, but not all greenhouse gases are created equal. There are some greenhouse gases that, when emitted, only stay in the atmosphere for a short time. There are other greenhouse gases (like carbon dioxide) that stay aloft for decades to centuries. Finally, there are some that stay airborne for an intermediate duration. It has often been stated that we can “buy time” by focusing on short-lived greenhouse gases. Reducing things like black carbon or methane can give us some extra years to get our act together on carbon dioxide.

But this suggestion is challenged in the PNAS paper. There are two major issues that suggest we really need to focus on the long-lived gases. First, since short-lived gases only stay airborne for a brief period, any emissions that we make now will not impact the temperatures we can expect say in 2100. Reducing our emissions of short lived gases will affect the rate of temperature increase in the next few years, but will have very little impact on the maximum temperature that will be obtained. In fact, the present study is clear in stating,

Maximum temperature increases (peak warming) is to first order determined by the cumulative emissions of the long-lived greenhouse gases until the peak and by the annual emissions of the short-lived greenhouse gases at the time of the peak.

This doesn’t mean that reducing short-lived greenhouse gases isn’t important. In fact, the short-lived gases become more important if we have already reduced carbon dioxide. As stated in the paper,

Methane mitigation measures in the latter half of the century become important if carbon dioxide emissions have already been curbed, and warming thus peaks before 2100. Early action on methane is less important for limiting warming to below 2C.

Part of the paper’s conclusions are based on simple calculations with a climate model. But another part of the study is based on the interdependence of these greenhouse gases. The gases are interdependent because they may be cogenerated – they may be emitted from the same source.

Take black carbon, for instance. Black carbon and carbon dioxide are often emitted together. So, reductions in carbon dioxide will also reduce the emitted black carbon. The opposite is not necessarily true, as black carbon can be reduced by cleaning exhaust gases of cars or switching to clean cook stoves, without fundamentally affecting the amount of carbon dioxide emissions. Methane and carbon dioxide are also more weakly linked so that reductions in one do not imply strong reductions in the other.

So, if humans were somehow to get onto a low temperature trajectory, one that limits temperature increases to 2°C or so, it means that we would have to nearly eliminate carbon dioxide emissions. Since one third to half of black carbon is strongly linked as cogenerated with carbon dioxide, it means that much less black carbon would be emitted as well. It is these links, understanding how greenhouse gases work together and are cogenerated, which makes this paper so interesting.

In the abstract, the authors warn,

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Comments 1 to 3:

  1. That comment about carbon dioxide stays aloft for centuries is contrary to the reality that carbon dioxide has always circulated. Industrial emissions has just increased the rate of generation of carbon dioxide to couple with respiration and other sources to more than counter the rate of absorption by photosynthesis. There is no possible way of identifying the source (fossil fuel or respiration) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, measurements have established that the concentarion level has increased rapidly in the past century and is continuing to increase rapidly, largely due to the high rate of emissions from fossil fuels.

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  2. Not entirely true. Fossil fuels have no C14 and a different C13/C12 ratio.

    See this article.

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  3. Denisaf:

    Here is the Skeptical Science response to the Skeptic myth the carbon dioxide has a short half-life.  The individual molecules have about a five year lifetime.  The increase in concentration caused by the release of those molecules lasts for hundreds of years.

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