Examining The Link Between Global Emissions And Global Carbon Levels

Last week I did a story about a report from the International Energy Agency saying emissions from burning fossil fuels were flat in 2015 for the second year in a row. The good news is that, for the first time, the world economy grew without a corresponding growth in emissions. But Gas2 reader Greg Robie tweeted that NOAA had just announced its Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii recorded the biggest jump in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels ever last year. “Carbon dioxide levels are increasing faster than they have in hundreds of thousands of years,” said Pieter Tans, lead scientist of NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network. “It’s explosive compared to natural processes.”

How can both reports be correct, Greg wanted to know. Aren’t they contradictory or, at the very least, mutually exclusive? Surely one of them must be wrong. That question nagged at me until I came across an article this week at ThinkProgress.org that deals with precisely this conundrum. I thought some of you might want to know more about this, so I am sharing the gist of that article with you. It was written by Joe Romm. According to his bio, Romm is the founding editor of Climate Progress and holds a Ph.D in physics from MIT.

Carbon emissions explained
Source: Environmental Protection Agency

The basic concept is quite simple. There is a carbon cycle that is a natural part of our environment. Living things use carbon to grow. When they die, they release that carbon back into the atmosphere. As long as the amount of carbon dioxide that gets absorbed from the atmosphere by living organisms is the same as the amount that gets added back, a natural balance is maintained. Ordinarily, the world’s oceans and land masses are able to absorb some extra CO2 to keep things from getting out of control temporarily.

The problem arises when average temperatures increase, as they are doing at present. Warmer seas and warmer land areas cannot absorb as much carbon dioxide, which means more of it gets released back into the atmosphere. When that happens, it’s as if the size of the drain in the bathtub suddenly got smaller. The problem is exacerbated during El Nino years because they bring even warmer temperatures which cause the oceans and land to release even more carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. 2015 was such an El Nino year.

According to Romm, what the earth needs is not just a flattening of carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels, but a long period of time in which little to no new carbon emissions are added to the store of carbon dioxide already present in the atmosphere. Romm suggest rather than celebrating a year of flat emissions, we need to be planning ways to reduce emissions by 80% or more. That would give the earth time to recover from the carbon overload that has been building up since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

I recommend you read Romm’s article in its entirety. It is cogent, concise, and more than a little scary. If you want to know what you or any other person can do to help, consider not voting for any politicians — whether local, state, or federal — who are not committed to doing the hard work of getting the earth’s carbon cycle back in working order. More than 60% of Americans are represented in Congress by people who are climate change deniers. Each of us must ask ourselves if it is really in our best interest — and that of our children — to continue voting such people into office. The need is urgent. Let’s stop enabling these people by denying them our votes starting with the upcoming election in November.

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.