Friday, November 16, 2012

Seductive fairy tales become popular science

This week we saw more evidence of how seductive the 100 Year Rule and the fairytales surrounding it can be. The Opposition's Climate Change spokesperson Greg Hunt  was being worked over by luminaries of the industry  in Carbon + Environment Daily . CO2 Group managing director Andrew Grant, whose company has carbon sink forestry operations in Australia and New Zealand, told CE Daily that Hunt's proposed 25-year rule "lacks scientific credibility".   Grant described 100 years as the standard international definition. Then he made his mistake: "The logic is that it takes 100 years for carbon to cycle through the atmosphere. So if you've demonstrated that you've removed it for 100 years, you've demonstrated permanence." Wrong.
Elisa de Wit, head of the Australian climate change practice of law firm Norton Rose, told CE Daily that, in order to count 25-year sequestration towards the nation's international commitments, the government would need to take additional steps "to address the subsequent 75 years in some way", she said. "Otherwise [the CFI] is not doing the job it is meant to be doing, which is offsetting the emissions that are staying in the atmosphere for 100 years," she said. Wrong.

Many believe that 100 years is the time it takes for a tonne of CO2 to cycle through the atmosphere. This is not based on sound science. It can take only 4 years, according to an IPCC Report. “The turnover time of CO2 in the atmosphere, measured as the ratio of the content to the fluxes through it, is about 4 years. This means that on average it takes only a few years before a CO2 molecule in the atmosphere is taken up by plants or dissolved in the ocean.”[1] However, it can take far longer for the atmosphere to adjust to the new levels of CO2, up to 200 years.[2]

This 100 year timeframe is a policy-determination, not a technical one,” reveals an EcoSecurities report.[3] It is a period chosen by the IPCC for calculating the Global Warming Potential of each different Greenhouse Gas compared to CO2. For instance, Nitrous Oxide has a GWP of 298 (ie., one tonne of N2O is equivalent to 298 tonnes of CO2).  The EcoSecurities analysts calculate that removing a tonne of CO2 and holding it for 55 years is sufficient to counteract its effect on Global Warming. The IPCC uses 20, 100 and 500 year periods in much of its analysis. “The Kyoto Protocol set the time horizon against which [GWPs] are to be determined at 100 years (addendum to the Protocol, Decision 2/CP.3, para. 3).[4] To be consistent, it can be implied therefore that the Protocol also requires the benefits of sequestration in counteracting the radiative forcing effects of CO2 emissions to be evaluated over a 100 year time horizon. Any uncertainties derive from both this choice of time horizon, as well as future scenarios of atmospheric CO2 concentrations, are not technically driven but rather are a natural consequence of ‘arbitrary’ policy selections.”

Carbon Farmers of Australia asked Dr John Friend[5] (NSW Department of Primary Industries) about the 100 year turnover time of CO2. He agreed that it was popularly believed. Indeed he used it in his own presentation to our Carbon Farming Conference in 2011. On our request he looked for a reference for it in the scientific literature. He was surprised. “Regarding a specific reference for the 100 year value, I can't find one. From what I can gather, the rationale behind using 100 years is from this paper [Watson, op. cit.]  which states an ‘adjustment time’ of 50-200 years’. This paper actually states that the decay of excess CO2 in the atmosphere cannot be expressed in a single figure, so the 100 year figure seems to be more politically correct than scientifically correct.”

Conclusion: Consideration of time frames other than 100 years for contracted sequestration of carbon in vegetation and soils does not defy science.

[1] Watson, R.T., Rodhe, H., Oeschger, H. and Siegenthaler, U. 1990. Greenhouse gases and aerosols. In IPCC Report No 1, World Meteorological Organization and United Nations Environment Programme, Cambridge University Press.
[2] “This short time scale must not be confused with the time it takes tor the atmospheric CO2 level to adjust to a new equilibrium if sources or sinks change This adjustment time… is of the order of 50 - 200 years, determined mainly by the slow exchange of carbon between surface waters and the deep ocean.” ibid
[3] Pedro Moura Costa and Charlie Wilson, An equivalence factor between CO2 avoided emissions and sequestration – description and applications in forestry, Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, Volume 5, Number 1, 51-60
[4] Reaffirms that global warming potentials used by Parties should be those provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its Second Assessment Report (“1995 IPCC GWP values”) based on the effects of the greenhouse gases over a 100-year time horizon, taking into account the inherent and complicated uncertainties involved in global warming potential estimates. In addition, for information purposes only, Parties may also use another time horizon, as provided in the Second Assessment Report.” IPCC, REPORT OF THE CONFERENCE OF THE PARTIES ON ITS THIRD SESSION, HELD AT KYOTO FROM 1 TO 11 DECEMBER 1997, PART TWO: ACTION TAKEN BY THE CONFERENCE OF THE PARTIES AT ITS THIRD SESSION, 25 March 1998, P. 31, Decision 2/CP.3
[5]Leader, Soil and Salinity, Natural Resources Advisory Services, NSW Department of Primary Industries)

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