Global warming 101 - why CO2 is not to blame

Global warming basics – Part 1: Why CO2 is not the villain

Despite that the world has been blaming CO2 for global warming and causing climate extremes, it is not the villain. CO2 is only a part of a larger whole. We cannot focus on CO2 levels alone. In fact, CO2 is just a symptom of a much larger problem that we haven’t yet faced. A problem, that is related to all living things on Earth.

How it started – CO2 on the rise

Since 1956, Charles David Keeling started to measure CO2 levels. He soon noticed that CO2 levels were at their highest in April and dropped to their lowest in October, before they started rising again.

Seasonal variation in CO2 levels during the year
Seasonal variation in CO2 levels during the year. Based on Dr. Pieter Tans, NOAA/ESRL and Dr. Ralph Keeling, Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Why does CO2 have such seasonal variation? The northern hemisphere is comprised of most of the Earth’s land mass. On land, green plants grow and take up CO2 from the air in spring and summer, thus drawing down large proportions of CO2. In autumn and winter, when plants don’t grow, CO2 levels rise again.

Overall, since that first measurement in 1956, the average level of CO2 has been increasing every year.

And the world has related the rise in CO2 levels to burning of fossil fuels.

Yearly rise of CO2 as recorded since 1956
Yearly rise of CO2 as recorded since 1956. Based on data from Dr. Pieter Tans, NOAA/ESRL and Dr. Ralph Keeling (Scripps Institution of Oceanography).

Are fossil fuels to blame for rise of CO2 levels in the air?

Walter Jehne, Australian soil microbiologist, says that Earth’s yearly CO2 emissions are over 130 billion tones of CO2 overall. Every year, about 120 billion tons of CO2 are draw down. So there is extra 10 billions tons of CO2 that is accumulating every year, leading to overall CO2 rise in the atmosphere.

Global CO2 emissions and drawdown as a cycle of the Earth
Global CO2 emissions and drawdown during a yearly Earth’s cycle. Data obtained from Walter Jehne’s public lecture.

What proportion of Earth’s CO2 emissions are actually associated with burning fossil fuels?

Fossil fuels contribute to mere 8 billion tons of CO2, yearly.

And the planet’s atmosphere is accumulating 10 billion tons of CO2 every year. So even if we stopped use of fossil fuels tomorrow, CO2 levels would continue to rise.

Decreasing CO2 levels – pointless exercise?

Plus, if we managed to remove not just 10 billion tons CO2 that is extra every year, but even more (20 billion tons) to achieve carbon negative future – we still won’t see our results any time soon.

That’s because of the oceans. They store huge amounts of CO2 and have been soaking up the excess from the air for the past 50 years. That has led to acidification of the oceans.

So once we start drawing down more CO2 from the air, the oceans will respond. They will release CO2 they have been storing in their waters and this would continue for 1000s of years.

Yes – me, you, our children and grandchildren will never see lower levels of CO2 in the air. We may manage to stop the yearly increase, but that’s about it.

But don’t despair. CO2 is just a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself…

The planet is heating up

There is no question about the fact that the planet is heating up. Sun’s radiation hits our atmosphere with a certain energy (at a power of 342 Watts/m2). If the climate was to remain stable, equal energy of radiation should be released back into space. But it isn’t.

Heat dynamics of our planet
Heat dynamics of our planet. The Sun’s incident radiation energy is higher than the heat re-radiated by the Earth back into space. This leads to warming of the Earth’s climate. Based on data from Walter Jehne.

In fact, less energy is leaving the planet (power of 339 Watts/m2). That means, our planet is getting hotter.

And CO2 is responsible for only less than 4% of heat dynamics of our planet.

Water governs 95% of heat dynamics of our planet

Water vapour is responsible for how heat is handled in the atmosphere.

Water vapour as main contributor to global warming
Water vapour as a main contributor to global warmingas a greenhouse gas, it has a higher heating potential in the air than CO2.

Why is no one talking about it? Why have we not modelled the effect of water on climate before?

That’s because it’s variable – it depends on temperature and many other factors. Just as weather cannot be predicted years ahead, water dynamics, or hydrology, cannot be either.

Scientists thought, water is Nature’s business and humankind has no control over it.

But we are responsible for far more than we realize. We manage nature – and we’ve changed it beyond recognition.

Read Part 2 to find out more.

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The amount of feed and fertilizers per 1 beef animal

As a calf, it is fed 100 kg of feed in a creep feeder:
60 kg barley
14 kg soya
23.5 kg sugar beet

growing steer (for 100 days) ratio:
350 kg barley
30 kg rapeseed

finishing steer (for 80 days)
600 kg barley

TOTAL feed per steer:
1010 kg barley
30 kg rapeseed
14 kg soya
23.5 kg sugar beet

Source: AHDB

Pesticide figure based on yearly application of pesticides on barley in 2018 (based on application to 0.17 ha that would produce 1 tonne of barley):

spring and winter barley were mixed in equal ratio for simplicity.
Pesticides in spring barley:
157.5 g
Pesticides in winter barley:
307.5 g

TOTAL 465 g of pesticides = to litres it is about 465 ml of pesticides per year.

Source: Pesticides usage survey 284 for arable crops in the United Kingdom 2018 (National Statistics)

Fertilizer figure (based on application to 0.17 ha that would produce 1 tonne of barley):
nitrogen: 24.14 kg
phosphate: 4.59 kg
potash: 5.95 kg
sulfur: 5.95 kg

TOTAL 40.63 kg of fertilizers

Source: British survey of fertilizer practice for 2018 (DEFRA)