Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Critical numbers: Where should Humanity Aim?

James Hansen and his associates are currently working with a manuscript called "Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?", available in the link above.
In it, they conclude that, to be out of the immediate danger of tipping our life support system into a state where it no longer can be considered a life support system to us (the humanity), the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere should be below 350 ppm.

The carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere is 385 ppm today.

This means that the atmosphere contains about 74 Gt too much carbon. Every year, about 7 Gt more is released. Say, as a thought experiment, that all emissions, 100%, are stopped within 20 years (don't ask me how), leading to a total breakdown of our current society. Even that would mean additional emissions of about 70 Gt more, leading to a CO2 concentration of 418 ppm (if the oceans don't suck up anything more, perhaps 400 ppm if they are friendly enough to do that).
CO2 levels like that would probably lead us far beyond several tipping points.
Even if not, the resulting climate would not feed the population, not to talk about the potential for floodings.

So, if disaster is threating whatever we do, should we give up?

No, since there is one more possibility: If the efforts to decrease emissions are combined with a massive sequestration of carbon, then it is possible to back away from the ominous carbon dioxide levels.
As the incorporation of plant charcoal in the soil obviously has a lot of benign effects (Google: Terra Preta ), increasing crops, reducing nutrient loses and so on, why shouldn't we start immediately?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The carbon numbers II

I have several times been asked about the amount of carbon existing in excess in the atmosphere, and the possibilities to remove it within reasonable time. Therefore, I will provide the figures as far as I know them, and the reasoning behind them.
If you can't stand numbers, stop reading here.

The global annual net primary production (NPP) varies, but is estimated to be between 70 and 100 Gt per year, by different sources. This is the annual biomass growth in the plant cover of the Earth. For ease of calculation, let's take 80 Gt as the number. Say that 50% of this is thin roots and leaves, not usable for charring. Remains 40 Gt C that is theoretically available for charring each year.
Assume furthermore that efforts to create charcoal for carbon sequestration results in an annual sequestration of 2 Gt C as charcoal. That would mean an addition of four tonnes of char per hectare globally, certainly a war-like effort. The global forest product production 2004 was abut 9.5 Gt (FAO), with a carbon content that can be estimated to 3.8 Gt C, so we are speaking of a herculean, warlike efforts in charring, about half the size of the global forest industry.
However, char can be made from not only forest products, but also straw and husks from agriculture, as well as forest products that are useless to the industry, which makes it at least theoretically possibie to reach a goal of 2 Gt. That is about 8.5% of the above figure of coarse biomass production.

Jim Hansen and Pushker Kharecha of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies have pointed out some faults in my calculations in the following paragraph, why I below present it in the revised form :
The carbon dioxide "cloud" is presently about 475 Gt too large (counted as accumulted emissions of C, carbon). Due to buffering from seas and other ecosystems, the atmosphere only contain 220 Gt of carbon The number is the difference between the atmospheric content in pre-industrial time (280 ppm) and that of today (384 ppm). (Of this figure, about 33% is from deforestation). (Figures from Richard A Houghton, Woods Hole Research Center, one of the IPCC guys, and Jim Hansen/Pushker Kharecha of NASA) Imagine that you could take all this away and convert it into charcoal. That amount would add about 955 tonnes of char per hectare agricultural land globally. This wll give the soils a carbon content f about 25%, not very far from the Terra Preta soils. But with the above efforts, 2 Gt p.a., it would take about two hundred years to reach that point.

The global carbon dioxide effluents of today are equivalent of about 7 Gt C. Assume, for a moment, that the people and their leaders around the world will face the imminent danger of a sudden and irreversible climate change and decide to do everything possible to avoid it. They decide to start the above sequestration combined with a sudden braking in carbon emissions, e.g. an 85% reduction in 25 years, leveling out on roughly 1 Gt C per annum, leading to a net sequestration of about 1 Gt C per annum.
Then, given that the reduction is even over time, one could expect that the carbon dioxide cloud could start reversing after about 18 years.

I hope sincerely, that that is not too late.