The Chinese peg the sulfur emissions worldwide

Aerosol pollution over China
Aerosol pollution over China: smoke from dozens of fires (left side of image) in China swirls down along valleys and then out over Bo Hai Bay (upper right) on its way towards Korea and the Pacific Ocean. Credits: Images courtesy of Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC

From PNNL: Worldwide sulfur emissions rose between 2000-2005, after decade of decline

Shipping, China top emissions growth in new analysis of 150 years of emissions

Global Emissions
Manmade sulfur dioxide emissions by country show a decline by the historically large emitters - Europe and the US - but increases in growing economies up to 2005. - Click for larger image

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – A new analysis of sulfur emissions appearing in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics shows that after declining for a decade, worldwide emissions rose again in 2000 due largely to international shipping and a growing Chinese economy. An accurate read on sulfur emissions will help researchers predict future changes in climate and determine present day effects on the atmosphere, health and the environment.

“Sulfur dioxide is an important component of the atmosphere. It changes the radiative balance of the earth by influencing the amount of the sun’s energy that warms the globe. We need to understand how much sulfur dioxide is emitted, and when and where it is emitted. This study will help us do that,” said lead author Steven Smith of the Joint Global Change Research Institute in College Park, Md., a collaboration between the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., and the University of Maryland.

Unlike similar studies, the new analysis also provides an estimate of how accurate this study’s emissions tally is. Referred to as “uncertainty,” the accuracy estimate arises from difficulties inherent in tracking sulfur. This study estimates that actual emissions for recent decades lie within 10 percent of the average global emissions reported by Smith and his colleagues. Regional values could potentially be off by a much higher degree — up to 30 percent in China, for example.

“The regional uncertainty can be moderately high, but the global numbers are much more accurate,” Smith said. “Understanding the uncertainty will help us determine how sensitive the earth’s atmosphere and land are to changes in sulfur content.”

Surreptitious Sulfur

The Industrial Age ushered in widespread combustion activities that spew sulfur into the atmosphere. Sulfur dioxide has the potential to acidify rain, soil and lakes, and it can counteract some of the warming effect of carbon dioxide, making it an important component of the environment to understand.

Sulfur’s climate role is complicated. In the air, it can form tiny particles called aerosols, creating new ones or building up old ones. Aerosol particles help form cloud drops, potentially changing rainfall amounts as well as affecting the acidity of the raindrops. Both clouds and the aerosols themselves reflect sunlight, reducing the amount of energy absorbed by the planet.

To determine how much sulfur has been emitted between the approximate beginning of the Industrial Age, 1850, and 2005, Smith and colleagues analyzed data about sulfur-emitting activities such as coal burning, copper smelting, or the use of petroleum. The data came from more than 140 countries and went back as far as the 1800s, when publications even at that time tallied how much coal and copper were produced.

The team collected the datasets, evaluated the quality of the records and plotted the data over time, breaking them down by region, source — such as coal or oil burning — and economic use such as heating or cooking, power production, and others.

The team estimated emissions data both by calculating sulfur release based on how much was contained in sources as well as from actual data on emissions collected from modern power plants. In the United States, government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy collect such data.

Sulfur’s Story

The factors that determine total emissions are the amount of fuel consumed, its sulfur content, and any pollution controls employed. The team found that manmade sources of sulfur emissions eclipsed natural sources by 1870, two decades after the start date of this analysis. By the year 2000, however, refineries were removing half the sulfur from crude oil, reducing emissions, the researchers estimated.

Since 1980, the fraction of sulfur coming from petroleum — 50 percent — and coal — 30 percent — has remained constant. In a reflection of desires for cleaner fuels, emissions as a fraction of fuel consumption began decreasing around 1970, due to shifting to lower sulfur fuel sources, different end uses, and emissions controls.

Total global emissions rose dramatically from 1850 to the 1960s, plateaued and then decreased after 1990, and then started rising again in 2000. Although the contribution from major emitters of the past — North America and Europe — has been declining since the 1970s, sulfur emissions are rising in much of the rest of the world. Especially noteworthy is China with its phenomenal growth. By 2005, China’s share of sulfur emissions came in at 28 percent of the global total, up from about 2 percent in 1950.

The international shipping industry generally uses a lower quality, higher sulfur content fuel than other transportation modes, and emissions from this activity have been growing in importance. They now constitute 10 percent of the global total. Although rising during the study’s time frame, a recent international agreement referred to as MARPOL promises to dramatically reduce these emissions in future years.

“Emissions from international shipping have not gone unnoticed,” said Smith.

Up and Coming

Although there is no central repository or process to keep this kind of information up-to-date, Smith reports that this data is being used by other researchers from climate modelers to social scientists. An earlier version of the data has already been used in models that are exploring possible futures of global climate, results that will be used in the next assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In addition, Smith is curious to see recent emissions data from China, the largest sulfur emitter in the world. “The most recent numbers in this study are from 2005, six years ago,” said Smith. “Since this data was collected, China’s emissions-control efforts have gotten much stronger. In China, the government is well aware of the impacts of sulfur emissions on health and ecosystems, and they’ve started to control them.”

Reference: S. J. Smith, J. van Aardenne, Z. Klimont, R. J. Andres, A. Volke, S. Delgado Arias, Anthropogenic Sulfur Dioxide Emissions: 1850-2005, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, February 9, 2011, DOI 10.5194/acp-11-1101-2011.

This work was supported by the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

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February 15, 2011 9:34 am

Won’t these emissions exacerbate the cooling scenario over the next decades forecast by prominent scientists? Doesn’t sulfur smog block sunlight very strongly?
China should be asked, or leveraged, to utilize clean coal technology, in which sulfur is scrubbed. This important air pollutant has been lost in the noisy chatter about the absurdly trivial CO2 “pollution”.
Why aren’t GE or Siemens using their talents to manufacture next generation scrubbers, instead of the silly pinwheels?

Gene Zeien
February 15, 2011 9:35 am

Excellent! Now there’s an aerosol to take the blame for global cooling (if such were to occur).

John S.
February 15, 2011 9:38 am

Sulfer: The next big cap and trade program?

George E. Smith
February 15, 2011 9:38 am

Lemme see now, Carbonic acid is a weak acid; and Sulphuric acid is a strong acid. Do I have those in the right order ?
I couldn’t see any corals growing in that Chinese “weather” picture.

February 15, 2011 9:50 am

Kung Fu Panda.
Cooling the Globe
Many climate specialists see so-called geoengineering techniques as a way to bring down global temperatures if other attempts to combat global warming fail. One approach is to inject sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, where it reacts to form particles that block sunlight.
Roll over the numbers in the infographic to learn more.
[b]Thanks to Nature, a Large Atmospheric Sulfur Dioxide Experiment is Now Underway in the Pacific[/b]

February 15, 2011 9:59 am

This can’t be true. After all, we all know that all pollution is caused by us in “the west”. (/sarc)

Honest ABE
February 15, 2011 10:14 am

Is this going to be used to explain the lack of warming and/or cooling in future years?
Ye Olde “the global warming is masked” meme?
I guess we should all still be afraid because global warming will be back with a vengeance.

February 15, 2011 10:19 am

Warmist will definately try to blame increased SOx emissions for the coming global cooling. This is not good, because it can prolong CO2 hysteria.
For the same reason increased volcanic activity would be bad. It might be an easy escape for warmists and prolongation of the madness.

richard verney
February 15, 2011 10:22 am

Gene Zeien says:
February 15, 2011 at 9:35 am
Excellent! Now there’s an aerosol to take the blame for global cooling (if such were to occur).
No doubt the warmists will point to this research and suggest that this explains why there has been no statistical warming since 2000. This has masked (and is masking) the effects of CO2 and that the underlying temperature trend is therefore still up.

February 15, 2011 10:22 am

John S. says:
February 15, 2011 at 9:38 am
Sulfer: The next big cap and trade program?
Already done – See EPA’s Acid Rain Program, the Clean Air Interstate Rule, and the next one coming will be the Clean Air Transport Rule.
Interesting article, especially in light of EPA’s latest policy assessment for SO2 and NOx National Ambient Air Quality Standards:

February 15, 2011 10:28 am

wonder how much CO2 makes it to Hawaii from China?

February 15, 2011 10:28 am

Yep, the ‘just so’ story about global warming just got another ad hoc parameter to play with.

February 15, 2011 10:29 am

“Warmist will definately try to blame increased SOx emissions for the coming global cooling. ”
Look at the Net change in the Totals for all regions.
By eye it looks like the total actually drops after 1975 or so.
But, the “Warmist will definately try” anyway.

February 15, 2011 10:31 am

Eclipsed natural sources by 1870….
So we have logged all natural sources?
Isn’t there a volcano in Kamchatka that emits half of Japan’s SO2?

Gary Pearse
February 15, 2011 10:33 am

This will give the CO2AGW theorists a bit of therapy and calm down the hysterics and desperation because it allows the theory to hide under a smog. Damn.

James Sexton
February 15, 2011 10:34 am

Back to the acid rain bit of alarmism? And as noted, now a prime suspect to pin on cooling so they won’t have to admit they’ve wasted everybody’s time and money on their contrivances and being wrong for about 4 decades. Smells bad.

Gary Pearse
February 15, 2011 10:38 am

Oh, and I have a surprise for many of you. Sulphur is plant nutrient required in amounts of about 10% of the nitrogen requirements. How did you think the sulphur got into coal? Okay, so sulphur in the past century’s atmosphere was not unprecidented.

February 15, 2011 10:57 am

I think you are trying to say that burning wood (which was not accounted for in the study) leads to Sulfur emissions. Yes, how did people heat their homes before 1850? Wood!

February 15, 2011 11:05 am

So, first China is near the top in CO2 production, but it is ok since they also countered it with large amounts of SO2.
This little article will definitely keep the hockey team from ever having to issue a mea culpa for the attempted destruction of Science. I don’t mind them being wrong, that comes with the territory of trying to stay on the bleeding edge of things, it’s the corruption of scientific scrutiny and falsifiable hypotheses that makes me cringe. Now we won’t have that moment when things cool again that clearly demonstrates the teams error.

February 15, 2011 11:07 am

Most of that stuff we call smog are sub-micron size sulfuric acid aerosols. It is especially harmful to our health because those size aerosols reach deep into our lungs (unlike gases that are adsorbed in passage ways). Acid rain, acid fog, acid dew, acid frost are all very damaging to most surfaces. Sulfur dioxide is a well known criteria polluntant that we have been attempting to control in the U. S. for decades. Early scrubber designs produced a “blue mist” that was sulfuric acid. Regardless of what China does in the future, we should continue reducing those emissions. Lives depend on us doing it.

February 15, 2011 11:09 am

John S.,
Where did you think the idea of the CO2 cap and trade program came from? It works relatively well for SO2 since there are relatively few sources of sulfur in the nation (notably, coal-fired power plants). Also, it helps that technology already exists to lower sulfur emissions from those power plants (e.g., switching to low sulfur coal, installing limestone scrubbers, etc.). Also, most sulfur has been removed from gasoline and diesel (at refinery operations) due to separate legislation. In 20 years or so, as more natural gas plants replace coal-based plants (not all have scrubbers by the way), I expect sulfur emissions will eventually be 10% of its peak in the US (note the graph above shows North America which includes dirty power plants and fuel in Mexico). However, removing CO2 from its sources is about 100x more complicated.

February 15, 2011 11:39 am

If, I said ‘if’, it should ever become necessary to restrict Chinese emmissions, the answer is quite simple and should not take more than 24 hours to implement — Close every retail outlet in the United States. Say what? Jobs? No! No! Don’t worry about that. We have Government Medical Insurance, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Food Stamps, AND radio, flashlights, candles, gas, and heating oil for about 30 days. (SarcOff)

February 15, 2011 11:49 am

If SO2 emissions were the culprit of cooling, industrial areas would see major cooling compared to rural areas, since the sun blocking effect would be much stronger over there. Not observed.

Bruce Cobb
February 15, 2011 11:57 am

That’s it! Trenberth’s “missing heat”! Problem solved. sarc/off

Chris Riley
February 15, 2011 12:00 pm

There may be a silver lining here. If, as many of us suspect, CO2 is not the cause of damaging global warming, the economic externality involved in CO2 emissions would have a positive net social value due to its stimulative effects on plant growth, and hence food production. Some of the sulfuric acid that is produced by sulfur emissions would react with carbonates in seawater and rocks to release precious, life giving, CO2 into the atmosphere that will help “feed the children” around the world. Who could not be in favor of this? This is not to say that sulfur emissions are a net benefit, only that a positive component to the externality may exist, and it should be accounted for in any analysis that attempts to measure the cost of such emissions.

Michael D Smith
February 15, 2011 12:11 pm

It sure would be nice to have “real” aerosol data. I was hoping to improve on a study Willis did recently showing impacts of volcanoes, CO2, aerosols etc. I was hoping to use better data if I could find it (the study Willis did referred to another study that used a lot of fudge factors in my opinion). I struck out on aerosol data. If anyone can point me to some better data, I’d appreciate it. If we can get this data, great.

February 15, 2011 12:16 pm

good Lord….
…if we had only known that saving the world from global warming was that easy

February 15, 2011 12:52 pm

Fred H. Haynie says:
February 15, 2011 at 11:07 am
” Early scrubber designs produced a “blue mist” that was sulfuric acid. ”
You don’t have a clue what a “scrubber” is…
As a former scrubber chemist I’ll try to enlighten you.
The full name is Flue Gas Desulfurization scrubber – aka “FGD” or just “scrubber”. The blue mist is mostly steam that comes from power plants with FGD’s. If there are any dissolved solids coming out then it amounts to small amounts of chloride, calcium sulfate, or calcium sulfate, though most of what might escape the “de-mister” section of the scrubber is “swirled” out through centrifugal force in the stack (to you it would be a smokestack). There is, for all intent and purposes, no smoke coming from a lignite or coal plant stack that utilizes an ash precipitator or baghouse for ash capture, followed by an FGD. What you see is steam at a temperature of 180F to 200F but typically it’s on the lower end of that scale.

February 15, 2011 1:30 pm


February 15, 2011 2:07 pm

Hmmm, y axis of graph is in Gg So2. So China is kicking out 35,000Giga grams of So2. Yet when Co2 is being talked about, the scale is in Gt or Giga tonnes. There’s a million Gg in a Gt so for comparison, China is emitting 0.03Gt of Sulphur annually.
For another comparison, nature cycles around 23Gt of sulfur annually, or about 700 times as much. If there’s no big volcanic eruption that year.

John S.
February 15, 2011 2:42 pm

Chris and ChrisW,
Sorry, I should have said the next bigglobal cap and trade program.
SO2 emissions are not traded internationally. The EPA’s SO2 trading scheme is purely domestic.

February 15, 2011 2:43 pm

Fred H. Haynie says:
February 15, 2011 at 11:07 am
The early designs were not scrubbers, just precipitators, like the Cottrell Precipitator, that only removed ash by electrostatic means. All modern coal stacks have efficient scrubbers; these remove everything but water. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that China uses diddly squat on most of their stacks. It is expensive to precipitate or scrub, so why should they bother, if no one holds their feet to the fire? Yet, we keep buying their goods, manufactured by children, and often contaminated with other hideous things, like lead and cadmium.
But here in the USA, our air is meticulously clean. Oh, except that air which comes from everywhere.
We remove the specks in our own nation’s eyes, yet tolerate the logs in other countries. Comedy of the absurd.

February 15, 2011 2:45 pm

I stand corrected. It wasn’t SO2 scrubbers, but NOx emession controls that produced the “blue mist”. Efforts to control one pollutant produced another. Before sulfur was taken out of motor fuels, catalytic converters produced sulfuric acid.

February 15, 2011 2:52 pm

Andrew30 says:
February 15, 2011 at 10:29 am
“By eye it looks like….”
You don’t need to eyeball it. Click the link to the paper, the revised final paper has a graphic for the global total.
“…..the total actually drops after 1975 or so.”
I think that’s the point. Aerosols rose sharply from 1950-1975 masking Co2 warming. They declined 1975-2000 allowing the full impact of CO2 to be realised in the sharp warming in that period. This paper is now saying aerosol began to increase again 2000 which I guess explains the slow down in warming after 2000 and possibly into the future as others here have speculated.
I think people simply moaning about the convienence of this data for the GHG theory just isn’t enough. It doesn’t really contribute anything on a scientific level. Aerosols have an effect on incoming solar radiation, surely everybody accepts that? You can see it in the impact of volcano aerosols on global temperature. I don’t see any competing ideas around the role of anthropogenic aerosols over the past few decades.

February 15, 2011 3:05 pm

You are correct. The amount of anthropogenic SOx produced globally is dwarfed by natural sources—just like CO2 is dwarfed. Humans just cannot outproduce the earth with regard to almost anything. That does not stop Big Ecology from regulating everything; this could be the next (old) scare. The difference is that SOx has a local effect on the environment near the source. But sulfur is an essential nutrient for every living creature. In moderation.

Tim Channon
February 15, 2011 3:16 pm

That will help reduce the problems and costs of having to spread sulphur on farm crops to counter a deficiency. A web search will find widespread information from around the world. This is a known problem far predating AGW/pollution control but that means that those who push for reduced sulphur emission already knew of the side effect.
This includes the effect of sulphur deficiency on crop users, farm animals and knock-on to humans.
“Lower emissions from powerstations and industrial processes are reducing the amount of sulphur deposited in soils, forcing growers to rely increasingly on artificial alternatives.”
This is not theory, actual crop trouble and failures are out there right now.
My long dead uncle grew amazing vegetables where one part was soot from the coal burning railway, 8 lines, very close. Soot from the chimney often ended up on plots.
We pay now to take sulphur out of fuel oil.

David A. Evans
February 15, 2011 4:07 pm

Everyone and his brother has recognised the potential for claiming cooling is caused by this!
Has anyone recognised the potential for claiming a successful geoengineering experiment?

Dr. Lurtz
February 15, 2011 4:09 pm

When the “CO2 warmers die out”, we will need to pay to add SO2 and CO2 to the atmosphere.
Since the EPA declared CO2 a toxic gas, we better check “Obama Care” to see which of us need to go….

February 15, 2011 4:22 pm

This contradicts the common alarmist argument about the period 1910 through 1970 showing a 30-year warming followed by a 30-year cooling period (or natural cycle ?) , that being asserted as the consequence of changing SO2 emissions. On the other hand, it has been claimed that the recent 30-year warming, (whilst of similar magnitude to 1910-1940), is unprecedented because the SO2 scenario cannot apply
However, according to Fig 3 in the paper, (PDF):
DOI 10.5194/acp-11-1101-2011.
the global SO2 increased from ~0.030 Gigatonnes to ~0.055 Gt within the “rapid” warming period of 1910 through 1940. Then followed a rapid increase in SO2 from ~0.055Gt to 0.130 Gt or let’s say an average of ~0.095 Gt, which corresponded to the following ~30 year cooling period. That’s sort of OK so far in that argument, but then for the “unprecedented” warming from around 1970, the average SO2 level has hovered around a considerably higher level of 0.120 Gt, which somewhat destroys the argument. (if the numbers can be believed). I wonder why they used Giga grammes ilo Gt?

February 15, 2011 4:40 pm

David Evans wrote:
Has anyone recognised the potential for claiming a successful geoengineering experiment?
Do you remember how “acid rain” was “fixed” by legislation some years ago?

John Brookes
February 15, 2011 5:35 pm

If aerosols and the droplets they cause reflect sunlight back into space, then we should be able to measure a change in the radiation coming from earth. Does anyone know if we have a satellite up there doing this, and what if any results it has given lately?

Werner Brozek
February 15, 2011 8:52 pm

“Michael D Smith says:
February 15, 2011 at 12:11 pm
It sure would be nice to have “real” aerosol data.”
How is this:

Brian H
February 16, 2011 12:46 am

The clustering of malignant memes! “Acid raid”. “Acidification of the seas”. “Sulfur pollution”. “NOx pollution”. “CO2 pollution”. All massively inaccurate. The sulfur C&T was a scam, and had no benefit. Sulfur controls are trivial and unimportant. CO2 “acidified” seawater is more productive, because there is an excess of calcium in the water, which carbonic acid helps organisms utilize. Etc., etc.
Environmentalism is rife and riddled with ridiculous reversals.

Martin Lewitt
February 16, 2011 5:50 am

“Aerosols rose sharply from 1950-1975 masking Co2 warming. They declined 1975-2000 allowing the full impact of CO2 to be realised in the sharp warming in that period.”
It can just as easily be argued that the aerosols masked the full effect of the solar grand maximum as well. There is a reason that the IPCC bundled anthropogenic aerosol forcing with CO2. CO2 forcing is logarithmic with its concentration and it could no more explain the steep slope of the temperature rise than it could the mid-century cooling. Bundle solar with anthropogenic aerosol forcing and the models could probably “match” the 20th century warming without CO2, just as the large uncertainty in aerosols explain the how the models manage to “match” the 20th century warming with widely different climate sensitivities.

February 16, 2011 6:42 am

bubbagyro says:
February 15, 2011 at 2:43 pm
The early designs were not scrubbers, just precipitators, like the Cottrell Precipitator, that only removed ash by electrostatic means. All modern coal stacks have efficient scrubbers; these remove everything but water. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that China uses diddly squat on most of their stacks.
There was the pic here last yr of a new, huge, 4-unit coal plant in China. It didn’t have precipitators, let alone scrubbers. An engineer’s dream — half the plant maintenance requirements & parasitic power-losses are eliminated! j/k
At the plant I worked at in the US, the “newer” unit built in 1957 had the remains of the original, pure mechanical “cyclone” precips that removed ~60% of the flyash. Electrostatic precips had been added in the early 1970s, & those removed ~98%. Later upgrades improved that to over 99%.
So even in the ecologically “thoughtless” late ’50s, in the US it was still thought prudent by plant designers to remove stack flyash.

February 16, 2011 1:13 pm

Is the increase in sulfur emissions possibly associated with an increase in black carbon emissions? Do we have any emission curves of black carbon for comparison? Both substances are apparently released from coal-fired power plants (black carbon of course also from various other sources, mostly burned biomass). While the sulfur particles cool the climate, black carbon is interpreted as representing the secondmost important anthropogenic contributor to global warming, after CO2 (Ramanathan & Carmichael 2008)…

February 16, 2011 3:19 pm

Too vigorous cleaning up of sulphur (dioxide) emissions – OK I’m from the UK and we spell it that way – has led to a problem for farmers. They are having to add far more sulphate to the land as the air lacks enough H2SO3 (dissolved SO2). One person’s ‘pollution’ is another’s fertilizer.

John Brookes
February 17, 2011 2:02 am

The funny thing about this is that it suggests that the world will get warmer if China’s industrial production declines, or if they move to reduce their sulphur emissions. So go on, everyone, keep buying stuff from China!

Sam NC
February 17, 2011 3:21 am

The amount of the Sun energy reflected by aerosol is trivial compared with the Sun’s energy reaching the Earth. Aerosol cooling is as trivial as CO2 warming. The Climate Science community just have no sense of magnitudes.

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