No magic will suddenly remove atmospheric CO2

The rainforest canopy acts as a natural carbon dioxide ‘sink’

WHAT should we believe? At the very end of September, a report issued by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency was well documented in the international press. This report clearly declared that global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) related to climate warming had reached a standstill. Our fight against further global warming was beginning to win in halting the long-term increasing trend.

Supposedly, this was due to a decrease in fossil fuel burning in the world’s largest emitting nations apart from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Turkey and the Ukraine, all of which had rising rates of CO2 emissions. This report stressed that, in 2016, in other countries such as China, emissions fell by 0.3 per cent, in the USA by 2 per cent, Russia by 2.1 per cent, and in the United Kingdom by 6.4 per cent.

However, the report recognised that 25 per cent of atmospheric warming is derived from non-CO2 greenhouse gases, such as nitrous oxide (N2O) and with another 23 per cent produced by methane (CH4), which is derived from cattle belches and flatulence and the release of this gas from swamplands and melting permafrost areas in certain regions of our planet. Actually, 25 per cent of the total methane emissions emanate from fossil fuel production and leakages in natural gas distribution pipelines.

The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin

This latest World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) document, compiled through research in 51 countries, was released to the world’s press after its recent Geneva meeting in October. It stressed that that the concentrations of atmospheric CO2 have surged at an unprecedented rate to the highest level in the last 800,000 years. On average, globally, CO2 concentrations have increased by 3.3 parts per million (ppm) in 2017 from a total of 400,000 ppm in 2016. Last year’s El Nino effect and unusually warm seas in the Pacific Ocean played a part in this increase. Notably, CO2 concentrations are now 145 per cent higher than in the 1750 start of the Industrial Revolution. The WMO has declared that 2013 to 2017 are set to be the warmest five years in records dating back to 1850! Already this year, 12 national high temperatures have been broken with record highs of 47.3 degrees Celsius in Spain, 51.8 Celsius in the UAE, and 54 Celsius in Pakistan.

Graphs show CO2 levels at the end of the last ice age and modern CO2 emissions between 1960 and today. – WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin

Effects of CO2 concentrations on us

They have already initiated unprecedented changes in our world’s climates, as witnessed in dramatic ecological and economic disruptions. The latter is seen in the ever-rising prices of life sustainable grains, cooking oils and beverages. Since 1750 rapid population increases, especially in the 20th century, together with more intensive land use and deforestation combined with ever increasing industrialisation and its associated energy production via fossil fuel burning, have been the major contributors to our present atmospheric situation.

Carbon dioxide stays in our atmosphere for hundreds of years and methane emissions for even longer. Both gases absorb solar energy and reradiate it Earthwards.

Approximately 25 per cent of all CO2 emissions are absorbed by our oceans, which increasingly become more acidic and thus affect marine life and ultimately fishermen’s livings and a major source of protein to us humans. Another 25 per cent is absorbed by the biosphere and with increasing global warming with decreasing vegetation cover leading to desertification and aridity, we will see even more human migrants and refugees worldwide, as already witnessed in many of Africa’s Sahel nations.

Geological timescale

The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was in mid-Pliocene times (three to five million years ago) when temperatures were 2 to 3 degrees Celsius warmer than today and sea-levels were 10 to 20 metres higher. The CO2 was released from ice melting particularly from the Greenland icecap and the West Antarctic ice-sheet, with vast rivers entering our oceans.

Even at the end of the Pleistocene Ice Ages (about 11,000 years ago), the atmospheric CO2 content was only at 180 to 220 ppm. We know of prehistoric levels of CO2 through the analysis of minute air bubbles found in deep Antarctic ice caves, and also from fossils and chemicals found in sediments.

With ever increasing El Nino events in the late 20th century and more recently the 2015/2016 one, droughts have occurred in tropical areas, thus reducing the capacity of CO2 ‘sinks’, such as forests, grasslands and our oceans, to naturally absorb this gas.

File photo shows smoke from the now decommissioned Hazelwood Power Station in Australia.

Other climate warming gases

Of the total methane emissions, some 40 per cent is emitted into our atmosphere by natural resources such as wetland and termites, but 60 per cent is derived from cattle rearing, rice cultivation, fossil fuel exploitation, landfill sites and biomass burning. The WMO report revealed that atmospheric methane had reached a new high point of 1,853 parts per billion (ppb) in 2016 and is now 257 per cent up on the pre-industrial level of 1750.

Nitrous oxide concentrations in 2016 were at 328.9 ppb or 122 per cent higher than pre-industrial levels. Sixty per cent of this gas is emitted from natural resources such as oceans and soil and 40 per cent from anthropogenic sources in biomass burning, fertiliser spreading for field crops and in other industrial processes.

The outcome

Who knows? What we do know is that this WMO report will play a large part in influencing 195 environment ministers to work on the guidelines to implement the Paris Climate Accord of 2015. The deal set out then was to seek to limit the rise in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times. Hopefully, the laissez-faire attitude of President Trump will not pull the USA out of the previous deal and may he listen to the advice of his outstanding meteorologists and oceanographers!

We await results from the key outcomes of the 10-day conference of the United Nations Climate Change meeting in Bonn, Germany, last month. Do we wish to go down in history, as seen as ‘The Age of Indifference’, in our scientific and technological era when we should be doing something positive to avert and moreover stop the pollution of our atmosphere? Let’s cease the rhetoric, for we need immediate action to avenge the inheritance our forefathers have left us since the start of the Industrial Revolution, now over two and half centuries ago.

The WMO report of this October is truly a wake-up call to all nations to slow things down and to find antidotes to the manmade poisonous gases which have infected our planet. Let’s get a firm grip once and for all on this for the benefit of present and future generations of mankind.

Harsh political decisions must be made for curiously the 2015 Paris Agreement prescribed emission reductions on a voluntary basis without sanctioning those nations who miss their targets.

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