Focusing on non-CO2 forcing loses time instead of buying time

This blog post by Raymond Pierrehumbert on Real Climate disembowels the argument that we can maybe trade off the difficult task of controlling CO2 emissions against tackling short lived climate forcing agents like methane or soot. While some proponents, as quoted in the post, highlight that CO2 is nevertheless of crucial importance, others like the authors of the “Hartwell Paper” put forward tackling non-CO2 agents as an alternative to aggressively tackling CO2.

Following that path would be rather catastrophic, says Pierrehumbert, because the different agents have vastly different atmospheric lifetimes. For example, methane oxidizes to CO2 in about 10 years.

That means that the methane concentration in the atmosphere is determined by the methane emission rate averaged over the previous ten years, and the methane component of warming disappears quickly after emissions cease. In contrast, about half of CO2 emitted disappears into the ocean fairly quickly, while the other half stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years. Therefore, the atmospheric burden of CO2 in any given year is determined by the cumulative emissions going back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and the warming persists for thousands of years after emissions cease. (…)

It’s cumulative carbon that counts, and pretty much it is the only thing that counts. A cumulative emission of a trillion tonnes of carbon just might keep the Earth below a warming of 2ºC (…)

Suppose we are outrageously successful, and knock down anthropogenic methane emissions to zero, which would knock back atmospheric methane to a pre-industrial concentration of around 0.8 ppm. This yields a one-time reduction of radiative forcing of about 0.9W/m2. (…) This gives us a one-time cooling of 0.4ºC. The notion of “buying time” comes from the idea that by taking out this increment of warming, you can go on emitting CO2 for longer before hitting a 2 degree danger threshold. The problem is that, once you hit that threshold with CO2, you are stuck there essentially forever, since you can’t “unemit” the CO2 with any known scalable economically feasible technology.

While we are “buying” (or frittering away) time dealing with methane, fossil-fuel CO2 emission rate, and hence cumulative emissions, continue rising at the rate of 3% per year, as they have done since 1900. By 2040, we have put another 573 gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, bringing the cumulative fossil fuel total up to 965 gigatonnes. By controlling methane you have indeed kept the warming in 2040 from broaching the 2C limit, but what happens then? In order to keep the cumulative emissions below the 1 trillion tonne limit, you are faced with the daunting task of bringing the emissions rate (which by 2040 has grown to 22 gigatonnes per year) all the way to zero almost immediately. That wasn’t very helpful, was it? At that point, you’d probably like to return the time you bought and get a refund (but sorry, no refunds on sale items). More realistically, by the time you managed to halt emissions growth and bring it down to nearly zero, another half trillion tonnes or so would have accumulated in the atmosphere, committing the Earth to a yet higher level of long-term warming.

Suppose instead that you had focused all efforts on reducing the growth rate of CO2 emissions from 3% to 2%, averaged over 2010-2040, forgetting about methane until the end of that period. In this scenario, the cumulative carbon emitted up to 2040 is only 713 gigatonnes, giving more time to avoid hitting the trillion-tonne threshold. The warming from CO2 in 2040 is about 1.2C, but we have to add in another 0.4ºC because we haven’t done anything to bring down methane emissions. That brings the warming to 1.6C, which will increase further beyond 2040 as the cumulative carbon emissions approach a trillion tonnes. However, since methane responds within a decade to emissions reductions, we still get the full climate benefit of reducing methane even if the actions are deferred to 2040. The same cannot be said for deferral of action on CO2 emissions.

(…) There are a few greenhouse gases other than CO2 that have lifetimes sufficiently long to lend some urgency to their control. That would include HFC23 with a lifetime of 260 years, CFC13 with a lifetime of 640 years and SF6 with a practically unlimited lifetime. Most of the rest are more like methane than they are like CO2 (e.g HFC31 at 5 years).

Incidentally, while not going into this explicitly, this argument also completely explodes the basket approach of the Kyoto Protocol, where reductions of six GHGs and groups of GHGs can be traded off against each other.

IPCC-style Global Warming Potentials attempt to trade off radiative forcing against lifetime in a Procrustean attempt to boil all climate forcings down to a single handy-dandy number that can be used in climate treaties and national legislation. In reality, aerosol-forming emissions, short-lived greenhouse gas emissions, and CO2 emissions are separate dials, controlling very different aspects of the Earth’s climate future. CO2 emissions play a distinguished role, because they ratchet up the Earth’s thermostat. It’s a dial you can turn up, but you can’t turn it back down. CO2 is a genie you can’t put back in the bottle. Climate forcings should not be aggregated. Each category should be treated in its own right. Otherwise, there are perverse incentives to do too much too soon on short-lived forcings and too little too late on CO2.

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