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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Friday, December 7, 2018

Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Continue Increasing

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from sources all around the globe are estimated to be increasing at a renewed, distressingly rapid, rate for 2018 to date, 2.7% for the year, after having been determined to be lower, about 1.6% for the full year of 2017. This evaluation is part of a detailed accounting of all sources of CO2 emissions and of planetary processes that remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  The study is undertaken now an annual basis and reported in the “Global Carbon Budget 2018” (C. Le Quere and 70 coauthors, Earth Syst. Sci. Data, 10, 2141-2194, 2018).  The main sources of CO2 emissions are use of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) and the manufacture of cement.  The two largest factors that remove CO2 are absorption into the waters of the ocean, and plant and soil incorporation of CO2.  The net balance between all emitting and absorbing factors leads to the increase in man-made atmospheric CO2 that is the main concern when considering global warming.  The authors present the increasing trend of atmospheric CO2 in the following graphic:
Direct measurement of atmospheric CO2 concentration from 1958 to 2018. This graphic represents the difference between man-made sources of CO2 in the atmosphere and its removal by natural earth processes. The authors’ analysis shows that humanity’s use of fossil fuels is a main contributor to increased CO2, and is a main contributor to global warming.
Source: C. Le Quere and coauthors, Earth Syst. Sci. Data, 10, 2141-2194 (2018)
Why is CO2 emission such a problem?  This gas persists in the atmosphere for centuries, if not longer.  So the coal that was burned when the industrial revolution began produced CO2 that is still part of the atmosphere today, and the aggregate amount of fossil fuels we consume at present produces CO2 that will last for centuries.  The excess accumulation of CO2 shown above cannot be removed economically on the massive scale needed with currently existing technology: the annual growth of atmospheric in 2017 was 4.6±0.2billion metric tons measured as carbon/yr (or 16.8 billion metric tons measured as CO2/yr).

The increased heat-trapping ability of the additional atmospheric CO2 has alarmed scientists in the past couple of months.  They have issued two dramatic calls to action by the nations of the world (here and here) urging humanity to limit the overall rise in the long-term global average temperature to less than 1.5°C (2.7°F) by 2040 or 2050.  Voluntary national commitments were made by the members of the United Nations to reduce annual emission rates when the Paris Agreement was reached in 2015.  Even at that time, analysis of the commitments recognized that they were seriously insufficient to accomplish the limitation needed.  And in the succeeding three years, even those commitments have not been met.  This is made worse by President Trump’s intention for the U. S. to leave the Paris Agreement; the U. S. remains one of the three top annual emitters of CO2 in the world and its emissions would increase under the president’s policy.

Global warming depends on the total accumulated greenhouse gases (GHGs), not the annual emissions rate.  The heat-trapping effect of GHGs depends on their total accumulated amount in the atmosphere.  A goal of simply reducing the annual emission rate does not replace the need to stabilize the total accumulated amount as soon as possible at as low a level as possible.  As long as the emission rate is above zero, GHGs continue accumulating in the atmosphere, thereby raising the long-term global average temperature.  Only achieving zero GHG emission rates as fast as possible stabilizes the total GHG burden at the low level needed.  

This is shown in the model image below.  It assumes that we start at a value of 100 for the atmospheric GHG level.  From year 0 to year 10 the annual emission rate, shown in blue, is 4% of the amount of the previous year (in the image the rate is multiplied by 25 to scale it to 100).  Over this period the cumulative GHG amount, shown in orange, rises by the 4% amount based on the previous year’s level, resulting in a line curving upward: 

Magically, after year 10 all net atmospheric emission rates fall to zero (blue) – including those originating from electricity generation, transportation, heating and cooling, and cement manufacture. No new GHGs are added to the atmosphere.  As a result, the total accumulated GHG burden (orange) flattens out, stabilized at the year 10 level.  It’s important to note that reducing the annual emission rate to zero cannot lead to a reduction in the total atmospheric GHG level.  This idealized model illustrates the important fact that the sooner annual emission rates approach zero, the lower the stabilized GHG level will be, with the result that the long-term global average temperature likewise will stabilize at a lower value.
The relationship between the accumulated GHG level and the  global average temperature.  The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued in 2013-2014, modeled the relationship between total accumulated CO2 in the atmosphere and modeled temperature increases (referred to the value during the early industrial revolution (1861-1880)).  The modeling included four “scenarios”, ranging from the most stringent (zero annual emission rate after 2030-2040; shown in navy blue in the image below), to a “business as usual” scenario (no meaningful policy to reduce emission rates; shown in red below).

Historical (black; 1870-2010) and modeled (2010-2100) temperatures (°C) projected for four “scenarios” of differing trends for man-made CO2 concentrations with greatest to essentially no limitations on annual emission rates.  Data point dots are given every 10 years.  The most stringent (navy blue) falls to a near zero emission rate by 2030-2040; the light blue and orange lines are progressively less stringent, and the red line models the absence of meaningful constraints on emission rates.

Three important conclusions emerge from the modeling shown.  First, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere at any point along the horizontal axis does not depend on the scenario, that is, it is independent of the annual emission rate.  Second, all four scenarios follow more or less the same path along the CO2-temperature relationship.  This dependence is nearly a linear one: the higher the CO2 level in the atmosphere, the higher the projected temperature.  Indeed, the most stringent scenario (navy blue) shows no significant increase in CO2 level between 2050 and 2100 (those points are all bunched together in the image) and consequently no further increase in projected temperature in those decades.  This projection mirrors the results in the model image shown further above.  Conversely, the unconstrained scenario (red) continues to emit CO2 to 2100, leading to a drastic temperature increase of more than 4.5°C (8.1°F) by the end of the century, a truly frightening possibility.
Third, bringing annual emission rates to near zero does not reduce the accumulated CO2 level after reaching a plateau, nor does this lower the projected global average temperature.  It only keeps the CO2 level and the temperature stabilized.  

Many countries in the world are not fulfilling the pledges they made under the Paris Agreement.  The New York Times reports,  based on the most recent evaluation by the International Energy Agency, that major emitting countries around the world, including China and India, are continuing to build new coal-fired electricity plants instead of migrating to renewable energy on the scale needed. In fact, China and Japan are exporting them, building new coal plants in many developing countries.  The United States is reneging on its emissions-reducing policies put in place under former President Obama, and is opening federal lands to new fossil fuel extracting leases.  France is showing how difficult  the political scene is for pursuing policies to address global warming; rioting citizens are opposing a small, scheduled increase in taxes on vehicle fuels.


This post demonstrates that continuing to emit GHGs at high annual rates inexorably adds to higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere, which leads to higher long-term global average temperatures in a straight-line fashion.  Currently there are no technologies ready to be deployed at scale to remove CO2 from emitting facilities or from the air, and permanently to store it away from the atmosphere.  Only reducing annual emission rates to near zero in the coming two decades, according to the two reports cited at the outset, (some advocate an even shorter schedule) will keep the world from entering a regime of unacceptably high global average temperatures.  All stakeholders need to coalesce around this objective to achieve this goal. 

© 2018 Henry Auer