Record levels of greenhouse gas emissions for last year

Two bits of news have just been published, both of which make for grim reading if you enjoy breathing.

Record rates of greenhouse gas emissions in 2013

The World Meteorological Organisation report we did exceptionally well last year at pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, with the highest rates of annual CO2 increase since 1984. Go humans!

One effect of all the grunt we pump into the atmosphere is to adjust radiative forcing, which is a comparison between the sunlight energy absorbed at the surface with that bounced back into space. Higher radiative forcing equates to a thicker tog duvet over the planet.

(That metaphor breaks down with negative forcing, which implies the planet is cooling, but works for the positive numbers we’re looking at here.)

If you’re interested in how much thicker the duvet has got in the last thirty years, here’s a handy graph from the latest greenhouse gas bulletin with the emissions broken down by gas.

graph showing radiative forcing and AGGI
The areas add to give the radiative forcing value for the year (carbon dioxide is light blue; the other gases are methane, nitrous oxide and CFCs from top to bottom). AGGI is a measure of warming power, click the image for more info on that.

At least we’re consistent, eh?

Other glorious greenhouse gas successes:

  • Atomospheric CO2 has risen 142% since the invention of the combustion engine,
  • Atmospheric methane (CH4) by 253%, and
  • Atmospheric nitrous oxide (N2O) by 121%

There’s no comparison for CFCs, as we invented those from scratch in the last century.

If you’re wondering why the earth doesn’t seem to be getting any warmer despite all this, the answer is:

  • It is. Average air and sea temperatures are rising, glaciers are retreating, snow is melting, sea levels are rising, seasons and wildlife are changing. By any measure you care to make, global warming is happening fast. The joint statement saying just that from the national science academies of Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, UK and US is here.
  • Some of the damage is being delayed by the oceans, which dissolve carbon dioxide into carbonic acid (they can suck in about 4kg of CO2 per person per day). The rate of acidification is now higher than at any point over the last 300 million years, which isn’t great news if you’re a fish. In the same way you can’t keep stirring sugar into the same mug of tea, we’ll have used up 80% of the available ‘dissolvability’ of all the water on our planet by the end of this century.
  • The last few scientists still pushing out reports claiming some greenhouse gas impacts remain unclear are usually funded by the oil industry. The oil folk are also those who pushed for the term climate change rather than global warming, as it sounds less scary. Climate chaos is preferred by many, more independent, researchers.

So, that covers how we’re going to knacker things in the long term. Short term:

Levels of airborne carbon in UK cities much higher than thought

King’s College London have found that volume of crap clogging the air in our cities is even higher than we thought, particularly if you’re driving.

They looked at levels of microscopic carbon particles—tiny lumps of coal too small to see (but big enough to damage your lungs)—which are kicked out by diesel engines in particular.

Readings have always been taken on the pavement, which is handy, because on an average street that’s where the concentration is least (although not by any means low). It turns out the worst place for the smog is a few feet off the tarmac in the centre of each lane, which is exactly where most cars put their air intakes for the cabin blowers.

In the middle of London pedestrians were inhaling about 6-7 million particles with each breath. KCL found drivers on the same streets were inhaling over ten times that.

Cyclists come off slightly better as their air intake (mouth…) tends to be above the band of smog.

The side effects of inhaling such high levels of exhaust products are what you’d expect: respiratory problems, triggered attacks in asthmatics, stunted development in children, etc.

As a final bonus, carbon particulates are also great drivers of global warming as well.

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