Controversial new climate change results
University of Bristol Press release issued 9 November 2009
New data show that the balance between the airborne and the absorbed fraction of carbon dioxide has stayed approximately constant since 1850, despite emissions of carbon dioxide having risen from about 2 billion tons a year in 1850 to 35 billion tons a year now.
This suggests that terrestrial ecosystems and the oceans have a much greater capacity to absorb CO2 than had been previously expected.
The results run contrary to a significant body of recent research which expects that the capacity of terrestrial ecosystems and the oceans to absorb CO2 should start to diminish as CO2 emissions increase, letting greenhouse gas levels skyrocket. Dr Wolfgang Knorr at the University of Bristol found that in fact the trend in the airborne fraction since 1850 has only been 0.7 ± 1.4% per decade, which is essentially zero.
The strength of the new study, published online in Geophysical Research Letters, is that it rests solely on measurements and statistical data, including historical records extracted from Antarctic ice, and does not rely on computations with complex climate models.
This work is extremely important for climate change policy, because emission targets to be negotiated at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen early next month have been based on projections that have a carbon free sink of already factored in. Some researchers have cautioned against this approach, pointing at evidence that suggests the sink has already started to decrease.
So is this good news for climate negotiations in Copenhagen? “Not necessarily”, says Knorr. “Like all studies of this kind, there are uncertainties in the data, so rather than relying on Nature to provide a free service, soaking up our waste carbon, we need to ascertain why the proportion being absorbed has not changed”.
Another result of the study is that emissions from deforestation might have been overestimated by between 18 and 75 per cent. This would agree with results published last week in Nature Geoscience by a team led by Guido van der Werf from VU University Amsterdam. They re-visited deforestation data and concluded that emissions have been overestimated by at least a factor of two.
Here is the abstract from GRL:
Several recent studies have highlighted the possibility that the oceans and terrestrial ecosystems have started losing part of their ability to sequester a large proportion of the anthropogenic CO2 emissions. This is an important claim, because so far only about 40% of those emissions have stayed in the atmosphere, which has prevented additional climate change.
This study re-examines the available atmospheric CO2 and emissions data including their uncertainties. It is shown that with those uncertainties, the trend in the airborne fraction since 1850 has been 0.7 ± 1.4% per decade, i.e. close to and not significantly different from zero. The analysis further shows that the statistical model of a constant airborne fraction agrees best with the available data if emissions from land use change are scaled down to 82% or less of their original estimates. Despite the predictions of coupled climate-carbon cycle models, no trend in the airborne fraction can be found.
Knorr, W. (2009), Is the airborne fraction of anthropogenic CO2 emissions increasing?, Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L21710, doi:10.1029/2009GL040613.
According to Pat Michaels at World Climate Report:
Dr. Knorr carefully analyzed the record of anthropogenic CO2 emissions, atmospheric CO2 concentrations, and anthropogenic land-use changes for the past 150 years. Keeping in mind the various sources of potential errors inherent in these data, he developed several different possible solutions to fitting a trend to the airborne fraction of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. In all cases, he found no significant trend (at the 95% significance level) in airborne fraction since 1850.
(Note: It is not that the total atmospheric burden of CO2 has not been increasing over time, but that of the total CO2 released into the atmosphere each year by human activities, about 45% remains in the atmosphere while the other 55% is taken up by various natural processes—and these percentages have not changed during the past 150 years)
Here is Figure 1 from the Knorr paper:
Figure 1. The annual increase in atmospheric CO2 (as determined from ice cores, thin dotted lines, and direct measurements, thin black line) has remained constantly proportional to the annual amount of CO2 released by human activities (thick black line). The proportion is about 46% (thick dotted line). (Figure source: Knorr, 2009)
The conclusion of the Knorr paper reads:
Given the importance of the [the anthropogenic CO2 airborne fraction] for the degree of future climate change, the question is how to best predict its future course. One pre-requisite is that we gain a thorough understand of why it has stayed approximately constant in the past, another that we improve our ability to detect if and when it changes. The most urgent need seems to exist for more accurate estimates of land use emissions.
Another possible approach is to add more data through the combination of many detailed regional studies such as the ones by Schuster and Watson (2007) and Le Quéré et al. (2007), or using process based models combined with data assimilation approaches (Rayner et al., 2005). If process models are used, however, they need to be carefully constructed in order to answer the question of why the AF has remained constant and not shown more pronounced decadal-scale fluctuations or a stronger secular trend.
In other words, like we have repeated over and over, if the models can’t replicate the past (for the right reasons), they can’t be relied on for producing accurate future projections. And as things now stand, the earth is responding to anthropogenic CO2 emissions in a different (and perhaps better) manner than we thought that it would.
Yet here we are, on the brink of economy crippling legislation to tackle a problem we don’t fully understand and the science is most certainly not settled on.
UPDATE: A professional email list I’m on is circulating the paper, read it here: Knorr 2009_CO2_sequestration