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.


Anonymous said...

Jumping into the middle of a conversation is very difficult. The net impression that a casual observer should take from this post is that we all have to work very hard to get all unnecessary carbon recovered in the form of biochar.

The math to get from 955GT of excess atmospheric C to the probable annual potential sequestration of 2GT needs to be more clearly presented if you want others to be able to follow.

However, the facilities for charing organic waste are pretty rare. So, no matter what the number turns out to be we have a Herculean task ahead of us. The question that is next in line is what steps are needed to get as many people doing the right thing as possible. Should we be developing small heating/generating systems that use easily collected residues to make electricity and heat and finally biochar which the person spreads on fields near home? Or do you envision large industrial complexes where this is done?

I have yet to meet any person in the US that is willing to begin to think about such an effort. When trying to compare the effort needed to accomplish the above with the accomplishments of recent military efforts, I would rather see the effort remain with small distributed producers rather than large centralized systems.

I think that your recent work has been very helpful. Thankyou.
Alan Page

Folke said...

I have to ask you read the discussion from the beginning. (That is a problem, when they are published from bottom up)
First, the amount of excess carbon in the atmosphere is currently 220 Gt, counted from the current co2 level. The higher number (475) is what is released during industrialization.
he interesting thing is that charring is pretty easy. We have good and widespread knowledge of it. Furthermore, char in the soil is very good for the soil.
The problem is how to make people do it on a large scale. That is why I talk about a 'negative carbon dioxide tax' paid to the sequesterer, which would open a new, an hopefully more universally beneficial, Klondike.
Someting for the US citizens?