Climate Change Facts – from Climate Change to Runaway Global Heating

global warming

In the light of the recent IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems, (Ref 1), it is interesting to recap some of the salient features of the runaway global heating emergency that we humans find ourselves in.

Slow changes of carbon dioxide, methane, and oxygen concentrations and temperatures in the atmosphere, over hundreds of thousands or millions of years, are normal. The biosphere reacts over millions of years; species come and go.

Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and the biosphere emerged around 3 billion years ago after the young earth started to cool down. The biosphere is a super-organism that is self-regulating. Chemical processes (the elements) interact with physical processes (sunlight, gravity, waves, particles and their behaviour) to create biological organisms (bacteria, animals; plants). Chemical changes affect biological changes.

2-3 billion years ago cyano bacteria came into existence. They are sometimes considered algae, but they are actually bacteria (prokaryotic), where the term “algae” is now reserved for eukaryotic organisms. They derive their energy through photosynthesis, but lack a nucleus or membrane bound organelles like chloroplasts. They produced the world’s first oxygen that replaced the sulphurous atmosphere or archaic earth.

Around 2 billion years ago eukaryotes came into existence. Each cell contains a nucleus enclosed within a membrane, unlike prokaryotes (bacteria and archaea). Eukaryotic cells also contain other membrane-bound organelles such as mitochondria and the golgi apparatus. Some cells of plants and algae contain chloroplasts. Unlike unicellular archaea and bacteria, eukaryotes may also be multicellular and may be organisms consisting of many cell types forming different kinds of tissue. Such primitive eukaryotes are the ancestors of humans.

Animals and plants are the most familiar eukaryotes. Eukaryotes can reproduce both asexually through mitosis and sexually through meiosis and gamete fusion. 800 million years ago eukaryotes became very common. Sexual reproduction ensures that pests are unable to adapt to one specific genetic profile of the species. The human female retains genetic marks from male offspring too, a mechanism that may play a similar role in boosting immunity for the mother or for subsequent offspring or both. There is of course the question of what all this marvellous ability by humans to resist disease, – as they evolved from around 2 million years ago until the present -, implies, now that there will soon be 10 billion of us. What does earth have in store for the species?

55 million years ago there occurred the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). For around 2000 years, volcanoes spewed out around 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year (1 GtCO2 yr-1), and caused the average global temperature to rise by 5-8 degrees Celsius over the next seven million years. For reasons no one really knows, the percentage of oxygen in earth’s atmosphere has been 21% since then, a percentage that is suitable for many forms of organisms, including mammals. Perhaps oxygen began being retained in the atmosphere at a steady percentage once enough ozone was accumulated in the upper atmosphere. This shielded life from the harmful effects of UV radiation.

Over the last 800,000 years, CO2 concentrations have been as low as ~180 ppm, and during the Eemian interglacial that began around 130,000 years ago they were as high as ~300 ppm. The biosphere regulates its temperatures through homeostasis. Here you see the direct relationship between changes in CO2 , methane (CH4) and temperature from measurements taken from ice cores in Vladivostok, at thousand year intervals from 160’000 years ago to the present.


The blue arrow indicates the levels of concentrations today. CO2 is at 415 ppm and CH4 is off the chart at 1866 ppm. When carbon dioxide levels go up due to volcanic eruptions, plants grow more abundantly, and thus over time they again reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and again bring down temperatures. When carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere dip to as low as 180 ppm as they did in the past, processes are triggered to push concentrations up again, including processes such as the decomposition of organic matter, fires and the release of CH4. The last time CO2 concentrations were around 400 ppm was about 3.5 million years ago during the mid-Pliocene. Now compare these rates of change to what the human species is doing as seen in the graph.

The self-regulating system of the biosphere, that has been oscillating within ~180 ppm to ~300 ppm for at least 800’000 years, a system known as natural homeostasis, has now been disturbed again, this time by around 200 private and publicly owned companies that extract, refine, produce, distribute and sell, fossil fuels in the form of oil, coal, gas and nuclear energy.

The difference between the present climate change event, – which is a global heating emergency -, and previous events, is that the present event is happening over a few decades, unlike all previous events that took from hundreds of thousands of years to millions of years to unfold.

In 1953 the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere were still at the upper natural level of 300 ppm, a level that had not been exceeded for 200’000 years. But from 1953 to 2019 the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere suddenly began going up very dramatically until today it is rising by 2-3 ppm per annum and currently stands at 415 ppm, the highest concentration of CO2 for 4.5 million years.

The causes of the steep rise of concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere in the 19th and first part of the 20th century, were deforestation, slaughter of other animals and native humans, and burning of coal for industrialisation and for the expansion of the civilisation of white Europeans in Europe and North America.

Then from 1953 to 1992 the CO2 emissions continued to rise in industrialised countries, such that in 1988 when the United Nations decided to work towards an international climate treaty, the concentrations were already at 350 ppm.

The Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in 1992. The UNFCCC takes 1990 as the base year against which CO2 levels have to be reduced. In 1990 the production, consumption and distribution of fossil fuels contributed to the following average emissions from industrial and energy sources in selected countries in tCO2 /person/yr: Canada 17, USA 23, India 0.5, Nigeria 0.4, China 1, Germany 11.6. The total for all countries was 21 GtCO2 . (1 GtCO2 .= 1 billion tonnes CO2 .)

The 219 countries that signed the UNFCCC expressed their commitment to work towards the objective of the UNFCCC. Article 2 of the UNFCCC states that “The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”

Sadly, because the purpose of the capitalist system is borrow money from banks and pay back the debt and the interest, and to earn a profit for the borrower, the industrialised countries refused to cooperate with the developing countries to work towards meeting the objective of the UNFCCC. Since the beginning of the capitalist system in the 19th century, GDP had steadily gone up as CO2 has gone up, and vice versa. The two growth curves are impossible to delink. Only by eradicating capitalism and creating a system with or without money that makes humans work to support sinks, can runaway global heating be avoided. Developing countries urged the industrialised countries to consider adopting such a different form of democratic ecological social system, that, unlike industrial capitalist society, would not adversely affect people who depend on forests and agriculture. But sadly since 1992 not a single country has chosen to close down companies that specialise in extracting and selling fossil fuel products, despite the fact that their production systems cause such rapid rises of CO2 concentrations and the associated runaway global heating.

In 2018 the total emissions from all companies and countries were 37.1 GtCO2 . This should be compared with the 1 GtCO2 . yr-1 during the PETM. Today a temperature rise of 10 degrees Celsius is is programmed into the biosphere due to an accumulated 2000 GtCO2 in the atmosphere from anthropogenic emissions, 1000 GtCO2 of which was put there by irresponsible developed country governments since 1988 alone. Not one of the 200 odd fossil fuel companies that supply this commercial energy that is so dangerous to human survival has been closed down. It is very likely that 10 degrees C temperature rise will occur in the next 100 years, possibly even sooner.

Some experts advocate a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy to address all this. Sadly it is too late for this option. Let us examine why.

Assuming that all wind, solar, wave and other commercial renewable energy technologies are manufactured using fossil fuels, and assuming a rate of 0.06 kWh of energy required for manufacturing and transporting every kWh of such renewable electricity generation, and assuming every sovereign nation in the world is going to implement the Green New Deal (GND), we can calculate the global temperature rise planned into this proposal.

I am assuming an installed capacity per person of 2 kW wind and a net capacity factor for wind of 50% and 4 kW of PV and 2000 sunshine hours for PV per annum, so annual electricity consumption per person in the world is 8760 kWh for wind and 8000 kWh from PV, so lets take 8000 kWh consumption per person per year of RETs electricity consumption.

In this scenario we are ignoring the fact that electricity is not as versatile a fuel as petroleum. We are assuming the GND is going to supply 8000 kWh/person/yr energy for cooking, heating, cooling, water pumping and charging an electric bicycle. This is up from 1149 kWh/yr for Indians, down from 81,800 kWh/ year/person in the USA and compares to the 7251 kWh/person out of around 28’000 kWh that is renewable energy in the EU. Thus the GND is around 20’000 kWh/person/yr less energy consumption than what is currently consumed in the EU, and 73’800 kWh of energy consumption/yr /person less than what Americans consume. In the UK 5243 kWh/person/yr is from RETs out of total present energy consumption of round 20’000 kWh. In Switzerland the present total energy consumption is 29125 kWh/person/yr of which RETS is around 3000 kWh. In China energy consumption is 26013 kWh per person per year.

The global GND would involve a complete change in the kind of work a person does. Instead of working on machines powered by commercial energy, all human beings would be working in forestry and agriculture with just some small quantities of renewable energy for water pumping and cooking energy. However if we look at the plan in more detail, we find that, even if all excess consumption of commercial fossil fuel energy is given up, and even if we make these major changes to they type of work we all do, global GND will not keep emissions down enough.

This can be proved by calculating whether or not sources and sinks can be balanced. We are assuming an emission factor of 1 kgCO2 / kWh of fossil fuel energy. So the total GtCO2 emissions from the global GND are calculated as 8000 kWh/person/yr * 0.06 kWh of petroleum or coal or nuclear based energy required for manufacturing and transporting this RETs infrastructure, * 1 kgCO2 / kWh from such non-renewable energy, = 0.06 kWh * 8000 = 480 kgCO2 /person/yr. So that is 480 kg * 10 billion people is 4.8 GtCO2 / yr from the global GND. Adding 1 kgCO2 every day from 10 billion people breathing, adding up to a total of 5.1 GtCO2 yr-1.

Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) activities accounted for 12.0 +/- 3.0 GtCO2 e yr-1 of total net anthropogenic emissions of GHGs during 2007-2016 (Sources). The natural response of land to human-induced environmental change caused a net sink of around 11.2 GtCO2 yr-1 during 2007-2016. (Sinks). Thus there is 0.8 GtCO2 +/- 3.0 GtCO2 deficit of sinks without taking into account the 25 GtCO2/yr of GHG emissions from fossil fuels. (Ref 1)

In fact land is simultaneously a source and a sink of CO2 due to both anthropogenic and natural drivers and due to direct effects and positive feedback, and this makes it difficult to separate anthropogenic from natural fluxes. Global models estimate net CO2 emissions of 5.2 ± 2.6 Gt CO2 yr-1 from land use and land-use change during 2007-16. These net emissions are mostly due to deforestation, and they are only partly offset by afforestation / reforestation, and emissions and removals by other land use activities. (Ref 1)

Remembering that we want the biosphere to keep engaging in its natural system of homeostasis even now as we have already programmed 10 degrees Celsius temperature rise in the next century into the system, how can we allow ourselves to add 5.1 GtCO2 yr-1 emissions into the atmosphere; and in addition to continue to cause an additional net emission of 5.2 ± 2.6 Gt CO2 yr-1 from land use and land-use change in excess of the sink capacity of the biosphere?

Let us recap. The biosphere is a living system that maintains homeostasis in waves of time and space that extend over the whole earth and that interact with the cosmos, for example mainly by absorbing solar rays, over periods of millions of years. The concentrations of carbon dioxide today are higher than at any time since the mid-Pliocene 4.5 million years ago. As temperatures rise and fall in sync with concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane, and as 10 degrees Celsius temperature rise is already programmed into the system, does it make sense to have a global plan for emissions of 5.1 GtCO2 yr-1 from manufacturing more industrial infrastructure using fossil fuels to do so? It does not. Not only must we not emit any more CO2 , we must work to protect forests and create more sinks to the tune of at the least avoiding a additional net emission of 5.2 ± 2.6 Gt CO2 yr-1 from land use and land-use change.

The Biosphere consists of plants that breathe out oxygen and breathe in carbon dioxide, (sinks) and animals that breathe out carbon dioxide and breathe in oxygen (sources). The biosphere regulates the oxygen and carbon dioxide in order to maintain homeostasis. As seen in the Vladivostok ice cores, for the last 160’000 years until 1950 the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere never exceeded 300 ppm. But as we are already at CO2 concentrations of 415 ppm and global temperature averages are already more than 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial, and as 10 degrees Celsius temperature rise is already programmed into the system, there are questions about how the biosphere will behave. The natural flux in the biosphere such as in the last 200’000 years is around 10 Gt CO2 yr-1. How will the biosphere’s sinks and indeed the sources of greenhouse gases such as CH4 behave now that every year three to four times as much CO2 yr-1 is being added from manmade sources every year? We already know that the Early Eocene did not have any ice cover, and it appears that soon earth will again be without ice.

So whilst it is true that plants grow faster with higher carbon dioxide concentrations, this may only be in the longer term. In the shorter term it may be uncertain whether the sink will persist. For example, forest fires may be part of the natural feedback effects of temperature rise and continued deforestation, and CH4 emissions from melting permafrost, that are already exceeding by a factor of 5 the anthropogenic emissions of CO2 , are also rising at exponential rates due to feedback effects in the biosphere.

There is much more information about all this in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. It can be downloaded from the internet. The information in the report is extremely alarming. (Ref 1)

To be clear. AFOLU activities accounted for 12.0 +/- 3.0 GtCO2 e yr-1 of total net anthropogenic emissions of GHGs during 2007-2016 (sources), and the natural response of land to human-induced environmental change caused a net sink of around 11.2 GtCO2 yr-1 during 2007-2016 (sinks), a sink deficit of 0.8 GtCO2 +/- 3.0 GtCO2 ( all this without taking into account the 37.1 GtCO2/yr of GHG emissions from fossil fuels). And global models estimate net CO2 emissions of 5.2 ± 2.6 Gt CO2 yr-1 from land use and land-use change during 2007-16. Then how can we even in our wildest dreams conceive of continuing to emit any CO2 except what we exhale after breathing in oxygen?

Indeed a final nail in the coffin of the global GND idea is the slow rate at which the capitalist market installs RETS. Annual installation rates have never been more than 171,000 MW/yr. Assuming 1/3 new capacity is from wind and 2/3 from PV, we would need to install 34 million MW of RETS under the global GND. For this the capitalist market would take 198 years at existing rates of installation. And not only that. If we assume that business as usual continues under capitalism until everyone has 8000 kWh of renewable energy 198 years from now, the corporations and their consumers will be adding at least 37.1 GtCO2 yr-1 for 198 years into the atmosphere. Thus the rate of increase of concentrations of CO2 will continue rising for another 198 years. Assuming a growth rate of 1%, the annual rate of increase will go up from 2.11 ppm in 2019 to 15 ppm per annum 198 years from now. Over these 198 years the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere will add up to 1745 ppm, a level not seen since the early Eocene 54 to 48 billion years ago, when levels were between 1,000 and 2,000 ppm.

Trees such as birch, cedar, chestnut, elm, and beech flourished during the Eocene Epoch in some regions. In western India dipterocarp elements occurred along with taxa such as swintonia, pterospermum, diospyro and others. The earth must have been completely covered in forests. Aquatic and insect life were much the same as today. It is difficult if not impossible to know whether or how the human species or any other species will evolve and adapt to temperatures rises of 10 degrees C and to carbon dioxide levels of 1000 – 2000 ppm as prevailed during the Eocene Epoch and as will prevail in the next century.

And it is even more difficult to know what will happen to the few remaining animal and plant species that humankind has not yet caused to go extinct. Will they survive in the coming years of rapid global heating? Will new species evolve or is the global heating caused by fossil fuel burning causing changes that are much too rapid for most species to adapt to in the short term? Could all living beings barring perhaps bacteria go extinct in the near future, until over millions of years the biosphere settles back into a new and different type of homeostasis with very different common species?

It is impossible to know.

And because of all this uncertainty, it is better to avoid fossil fuels and avoid industry and avoid nuclear energy and all other forms of industrial capitalist practices. Instead it would be better to give all humans land based work, so that humans emit just the CO2 emissions from breathing and nothing more.

If we could adopt such land based and forest based lifestyles now, if we avoid machines; if all corporations and Governments that produce fossil fuels and nuclear energy are abolished and if our work is to disperse seeds to support sinks: then we might live on. We don’t know if we will live on if we do everything right; but if we continue doing everything wrong as we are today we are 100% certain to go extinct very soon.

All human beings need to take a patch of land to work on, to grow our own food, as well as food and sinks for the remaining wild animals around us. We must abolish private property and live within the homeostatic system of the biosphere.

One kilogram of carbon (C) weighs 44/12 kilograms of CO2. 1 kilogram of any kind of biomass from any form of plants, like trees, grasses, plankton or algae weighs around 1/2 kg of C. So every 1 kg of plant matter that is grown absorbs ! * 1/2 * 44/12 = 1.83 kg of CO2.

If the land on earth is used equally by humans, each human can disperse seeds on around 2 hectares of land. The total carbon fluxes on earth are around 10 GtCO2. That means 10 billion humans must each guard over and look after 1 tCO2 sources and sinks per annum. This CO2. and CH4 must only come from plants and animals. A human emits 1 kg CO2 when breathing. So of the 1000 kg CO2 plants that grow and decay under the watchful eye of every human every year, 365 kg CO2 is made up of the emissions from breathing. And this carbon dioxide is absorbed by 365 kg CO2 / 44/12 / 0.5 = 199.45 kg of plant food out of the 1000 kg or so plant food we grow and eat per person per year. Thus compared to the average CO2 emissions per person in industrialised countries of around 10-20 tCO2 per year, the sustainable level is 0.365 tCO2.. The rest of each person’s 1tCO2 carbon flux of 0.635 for, and from, the emissions from wild animals and decaying plants on our 2 hectares, which we must protect and nurture as do all living and non-living beings.

Living and non-living beings are cooperative beings that cooperate within the greater system of the biosphere for our own good and the good of all things. If we do things right in ways that don’t harm other living and non-living beings (unlike what industrial capitalists have done in the last centuries), we are bound to be able to go along with whatever other symbiotic changes between all living and non-living beings occur.

There can thus be a a human role in the sustainable carbon cycle even for 10 billion humans, provided we become human animals in the best possible sense.

And we must grow these trees extremely quickly to protect us from the 10 degrees Celsius global heating that is going to take place in the life time of children born this century. Our fate is in god’s hands. But our actions and choices are within our control.

Ref 1

Anandi Sharan is a Bangalore based writer




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