An ongoing rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide from burning of fossil fuels might be kept below harmful levels if emissions from coal are phased out within the next few decades, say researchers. They say that less plentiful oil and gas should be used sparingly as well, but that far greater supplies of coal mean that it must be the main target of reductions. Their study appears in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles.
The burning of fossil fuels accounts for about 80 percent of the rise of atmospheric CO2 since the pre-industrial era, to its current level of 385 parts per million. However, while there are huge amounts of coal left, predictions about when and how oil and gas production might start running out have proved controversial, and this has made it difficult to anticipate future emissions. To better understand how the emissions might change in the future, climatologist Pushker Kharecha and director James Hansen of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studiesa member of Columbia University's Earth Institute--considered a wide range of scenarios.
"This is the first paper that explicitly melds the two vital issues of global peak oil production and human-induced climate change," Kharecha said. "We found that because coal is much more plentiful than oil or gas, reducing coal emissions is absolutely essential to avoid dangerous climate change." Kharecha is also author of a related article, "How Will the End of Cheap Oil Affect Future Global Climate?"
CO2, which accounts for about half of the human-caused greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, concerns scientists because it can remain for centuries. Hansen's previous research suggests that a dangerous level of global warming may occur if CO2 exceeds a concentration of about 450 parts per million. That is a 61 percent increase from the pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million, but only 17 percent more than the current level.
|Contact: Kevin Krajick|
The Earth Institute at Columbia University