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CO2 Emissions Continue to Track At Top of IPCC Range

A new Nature Climate Change editorial (subs. req.) has a very useful graph (2 variants) that I have been looking for:

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Note first the y-axis: global CO2-emissions in Petagrams of carbon per year.  This unit is different from the other common unit used: CO2 concentrations.  The emissions eventually lead to the concentrations.  This is only the CO2 emissions, not CO2-equivalent, which might be a better variable but introduces more complexity in analysis.

Let’s go through the lines on the graph before we discuss them.  The “IS92″ lines (a-f; light blue dashed) were the emission scenarios developed for the 1992 Supplementary Report to the IPCC Assessment.  There are 40 SRES scenarios shown (thin green lines) and 6 illustrative scenarios (thick green dashed lines) that the IPCC developed for the 4th Assessment Report (AR4).  These are the scenarios most people discuss: A1B, B2, etc.  For the upcoming AR5, CO2 emissions form the basis of the scenarios.  There are ways to convert from one to the other, which is how all of these different scenarios can be plotted together.  The AR5 scenarios are labeled according to the anomalous forcing value expected in the year 2100 and a “Representative Concentration Pathway”.  Thus, RCP3 represents 3 W/m^2 forcing due to CO2 concentrations.  You can see what has to happen to global emissions to achieve this relatively low forcing value by the end of the century.  Alternatively, there is an RCP4.5, RCP6, and RCP8.5 pathway.  As a side note, my work will likely utilize the RCP8.5 pathway because we will most likely continue to move down this pathway for the foreseeable future.

Historical emissions are the black dots/line.  The estimate for 2012 emissions is the red dot.  It is obvious to see that our historical emissions has tracked near the top of any set of emissions scenarios (IS92-E, IS92-F, A1FI, A2, and A1B) and not the middle or bottom.  That has implications in climate policy because most scientific studies performed to date have focused on the low to moderate scenarios.  The reason is simple: most climate scientists thought there would be no chance of inaction once people saw what was likely to happen using even low or moderate emission scenarios.  In general, scientists were wrong.  The world has continued to increase the amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere, with “average annual growth rates of 1.9% per year in the 1980s, 1.0% per year in the 1990s, and 3.1% per year since 2000,” as I’ve covered in 2011 and earlier in 2012.  The post-2000 increase is largely due to China and India.

The lead author of the report posted different form of this graph and included yet another call to action that the world will ignore:

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A quick note: the RCP3 scenario’s absurdity becomes more clear post-2060: emissions have to turn negative to achieve 3 W/m^2 by 2100!  Is anyone aware of technologies that remove emissions from the atmosphere in excess of what we emit to the atmosphere?  Put another way, emissions would have to decrease to near-zero in addition to deployment of removal infrastructure.  I obviously wasn’t involved scenario development, but it strikes me as incredibly myopic to include this pathway in climate scenarios: it exists only as a fantasy, especially when you realize that important feedback processes are still not understood well enough to include them in modeling efforts.

The main point of this graph is valid though: on our current emissions trajectory, global warming of 4–6.1 °C is likely.  Given recent studies showing more sensitivity to temperature changes one order of magnitude less than this that has already started to generate real-world changes, no one can say with certainty what a 4°C rise in global temperature above the pre-industrial average will cause.

Now, I must make a very important point here.  This does not mean the end of civilization or the world.  Our species is remarkably adaptive to a wide range of conditions.  While our species has never lived in a world that warm, we have enormous advantages over our ancestors: technology.  The world might not look like it does today, and we will of course not live in the same way, but I firmly believe that whatever changes we make will allow the great majority of us to continue to live.

That is not to say that we should do nothing at all.  I have made quite clear that the current approach (UNFCCC & IPCC) has proven itself to not work.  I do not know exactly what the correct approach will be, but I think remaining in a failed paradigm is a bad idea moving forward.  We must make new efforts – the more the merrier in the short-term so we can evaluate what does and does not work.  My line of thought has developed to this: I think groups must initiate smaller efforts, and indeed I think in some cases they already have.  Regional cohesive groups generally know better what works for them and why.  A good place to start on a larger scale would be to work to understand why certain actions work in some places better than others and put policies in place to exploit those opportunities.

But 2°C is not achievable by any means that I can see.  Neither is 350ppm CO2 concentration.  Scientists and activists alike should cast aside these hard to understand numbers.  A focus on other goals: energy portfolios, land use, and adaptation plans make more sense (different numbers since we tend to operate that way).


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October 2012 CO2 Concentrations: 391.07ppm

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography measured an average of 391.03ppm CO2 concentration at their Mauna Loa, Hawai’i’s Observatory during October 2012.

391.03ppm is the highest value for October concentrations in recorded history. Last year’s 388.92ppm was the previous highest value ever recorded.  This October’s reading is 2.11ppm higher than last year’s.  This increase is significant.  Of course, more significant is the unending trend toward higher concentrations with time, no matter the month or specific year-over-year value, as seen in the graphs below.

The yearly maximum monthly value normally occurs during May. This year was no different: the 396.78ppm concentration in May 2012 was the highest value reported this year and in recorded history (I’m neglecting proxy data).  If we extrapolate this year’s value out in time, it will only be 2 years until Scripps reports 400ppm average concentration for a singular month (likely May 2014).  Note that I previously wrote that this wouldn’t occur until 2015.  I’ve seen comments on other posts that CO2 measured at Mauna Loa should be higher than anywhere else because of its elevation and specific location.  It is important to understand that this statement exists somewhere between correct to purposefully confusing to outright deceitful.  CO2 is a well-mixed constituent of the atmosphere.  That means that emissions of new CO2 are quickly and pretty evenly distributed in space.  While point locations might vary between each other (differences between polar and tropical CO2 concentrations at the same point in time vary the most, for example), the observations at Mauna Loa are very representative of those found across the set of observation stations on the globe.  In addition, as the graphs below will help demonstrate, the historical record is very clear: concentrations have done only one thing in the past 50+ years at Mauna Loa (or any other station, for that matter): increased.  There has been no plateauing or decrease in that time period.  Moreover, concentrations at all the individual recording sites show the same long-term trend: an increase.

That being said, it is worth noting here that stations measured 400ppm CO2 concentration for the first time in the Arctic earlier this year.  The Mauna Loa observations represent more well-mixed (global) conditions while sites in the Arctic and elsewhere more accurately measure local and regional concentrations.

Judging by the year-over-year increases seen per month in the past 10 years, I predict 2012 will not see an average monthly concentration below 390ppm.  Last year, I predicted that 2011′s minimum would be ~388ppm.  I overestimated the minimum somewhat since both September’s and October’s measured concentrations were just under 389ppm.  So far into 2012, my prediction is holding up.  October’s concentration is typically the smallest of any individual month’s.  We will know for certain next month whether October’s 391.0ppm is the minimum this year or not.

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Figure 1 – Time series of CO2 concentrations measured at Scripp’s Mauna Loa Observatory in October: from 1957 through 2012.

This time series chart shows concentrations for the month of October in the Scripps dataset going back to 1957. As I wrote above, concentrations are persistently and inexorably moving upward. Alternatively, we could take a 10,000 year view of CO2 concentrations from ice cores and compare that to the recent Mauna Loa observations:

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Figure 2 – Historical (10,000 year) CO2 concentrations from ice core proxies (blue and green curves) and direct observations made at Mauna Loa, Hawai’i (red curve).

Or we could take a really, really long view into the past:

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Figure 3 – Historical record of CO2 concentrations from ice core proxy data, 2008 observed CO2 concentration value, and 2 potential future concentration values resulting from lower and higher emissions scenarios used in the IPCC’s AR4.

Note that this graph includes values from the past 800,000 years, 2008 observed values (~6-8ppm less than this year’s average value will be) as well as the projected concentrations for 2100 derived from a lower emissions and higher emissions scenarios used by the IPCC.  Has CO2 varied naturally in this time period?  Of course it has.  But you can easily see that previous variations were between 180 and 280ppm.  In contrast, the concentration has, at no time during the past 800,000 years, risen to the level at which it currently exists.

Moreover, if our current emissions rate continues unabated, it looks like a tripling of average pre-industrial concentrations will be our reality by 2100 (278 *3 = 834).  This graph clearly demonstrates how anomalous today’s CO2 concentration values are (much higher than the average recorded over the past 800,000 years).  It further shows how significant projected emission pathways are.  I will point out that our actual emissions to date are greater than the higher emissions pathway shown above.  This reality will be partially addressed in the upcoming 5th Assessment Report, currently scheduled for public release in 2013-14.

Given our historical emissions to date and the likelihood that they will continue to grow at an increasing rate for at least the next 25 years, we will pass a number of “safe” thresholds – for all intents and purposes permanently as far as concerns our species. It is time to start seriously investigating and discussing what kind of world will exist after CO2 concentrations peak at 850 and 1100ppm. I don’t believe the IPCC or any other knowledgeable body has done this to date. To remain relevant, I think institutions who want a credible seat at the climate science-policy table will have to do so moving forward.  The AR5 might possibly fill in some of this knowledge gap.  I expect most of that work has recently started and will be available to the public around the same time as the AR5 release, which is likely to cause some confusion in the public.

As the second and third graphs imply, efforts to pin any future concentration goal to a number like 350ppm or even 450ppm will be incredibly difficult – 350ppm more so than 450ppm, obviously. Beyond an education tool, I don’t see the utility in using 350ppm – we simply will not achieve it, or anything close to it, given our history and likelihood that economic growth goals will trump any effort to address CO2 concentrations in the near future (as President Obama himself stated recently).  That is not to say that we should abandon hope or efforts to do something.  On the contrary, this post series informs those who are most interested in doing something.  With a solid basis in the science, we become well equipped to discuss policy options.  I join those who encourage efforts to tie emissions reductions to economic growth through scientific and technological research and innovation.  I am convinced that path is the only credible one moving forward.

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