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Carbon Dioxide Levels Top 400 ppm - Puts Pressure on Unburnable Carbon

Updated on November 20, 2016
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John uses scientific (Ph D, Zoology) & research skills to develop reviews & guides for climate change, global warming, environment, water

For the first time in human history, carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations look set to rise above 400 parts per million (ppm) in May 2013.

The last time the concentrations were 400 ppm on Earth was probably between 3-5 million years ago, during the Pliocene epoch, when the Earth's climate was much warmer than today. Seas were at least 30 feet higher then. Those levels, if they occurred today, would inundate major cities around the world.

CO2 was around 280 ppm before the start of the Industrial Revolution. By 1958 CO2 levels had risen to 316 ppm. This was a record high because CO2 levels never exceeded 300 ppm in the last 800,000 years, based on Antarctic ice cores and other data. (see the images below). Fifty-five year's later CO2 has risen to 400 ppm and the rise appears unabated.

The rate of rise of CO2 over the last 100 years, is the highest rate, known to ever have occurred on Planet Earth. It is most likely to have been caused by humans burning fossil fuels for energy.

Rising CO2 levels mean Global Warming and rises in sea levels.

Mankind faces a huge dilemma because about half the known fossil fuel reserves on earth will have to stay in the ground as 'unburnable' carbon if the global warming limit of 2 degrees C by 2050, agreed to by over 100 countries, is to be achieved.

This article discusses the concept of 'unburnable' carbon to achieve limited temperature increases on Earth and the political and economic challenges it poses for mankind.

Carbon Dioxide levels are increasing alarmingly, reaching 400 ppm in May 2013
Carbon Dioxide levels are increasing alarmingly, reaching 400 ppm in May 2013 | Source
The correlation between rising CO2 levels and buring of fossil fules is very strong
The correlation between rising CO2 levels and buring of fossil fules is very strong | Source
The rate of rise in CO2 levels over the last 100 years in unprecedented in the history of Planet Earth
The rate of rise in CO2 levels over the last 100 years in unprecedented in the history of Planet Earth | Source
Projected increases in Global Temperatures with various models
Projected increases in Global Temperatures with various models | Source
Summary of the Impact of Global Warming.
Summary of the Impact of Global Warming. | Source

More than 100 countries have adopted a global warming limit of 2 degrees C by 2050 as a guide, or target, to reduce the risks, impacts and damages of climate change. The higher the temperature rise the greater the risks of changes in ecosystems, weather patterns and sea levels (see inage above).

To understand what this means in terms of reductions in the burning of fossil fuels several research terms have made estimates of the CO2 increase that would produce this rise in temperature from 2000-2050.

One way of looking at this limit is to examine what these limits mean in terms of the total remaining reserves of carbon in fossil fuel on Planet Earth.

The summary table below shows the carbon dioxide equivalents of the various type of fossil fuels and calculation of what they represent compared with the CO2 limit to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees C.

The major points are:

  • Humans can only use about 25% - 50 % of known economically recoverable gas, oil and coal reserves up to the year 2050 if they want to restrict global temperature rise to 2 degrees C (depending on the CO2 level estimates 750 – 1580 Billion tonnes).
  • This means that 50-75% of the remaining fossil fuels on earth have to remain in the ground and nor be burnt.
  • Including shale oil reserves makes thing worse with 52% to 77% having to remain unburnt.
  • About two-thirds of the fossil fuels in terms of carbon reserves are coal.

This creates the concept of Unburnable Carbon - known reserves of carbon that have to remain in the ground and unburnt if climate change is to be curtailed.

Some of these potential Unburnable Carbon reserves are owned by Governments, some are owned by private companies.

This creates a huge world-wide economic, social and political dilemma that the world has to face and deal with over the next 37 years to 2050.

It involves all sorts of countries with different socio-economic and development status. Much of the fossil fuel reserves are exported and distributed around the world and so there are likely to be major effects on terms of trade.

Update: Exploitation of US shale oil Reserves Set to Change World Energy Economy

A higher than expected rise in US shale oil reserves and rate of development is set to change the global energy balance between new and existing producers, and possibly affect prices.

In the next five years, the US will have a third of new oil supplies, and will change from the world's largest importer of oil to a net exporter of oil. As a consequence demand for Middle-East oil is set to slow as a result. The surge in US energy production will change the the world-wide energy industry and the world economy. How will the US deal with the Global Warming challenges it faces? How much will the US leave in the ground?

The US is set to to overtake Russia as the world's largest gas producer by 2015 and to become virtually self-sufficient in energy by about 2035. There are political consequences as well as the power of OPEC (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), is set to decline.

Given the weakness of other economies there is a high probability that Climate Change is Too Hard and that the focus will shift towards accepting that Climate Change is inevitable, can't be stopped and to learn to adapt to the consequences.

The concept of Unburnable Carbon - The amount that has to be left in the ground if temperature increase limits are to be met.
The concept of Unburnable Carbon - The amount that has to be left in the ground if temperature increase limits are to be met. | Source
Fossil Fuel
Total Carbon Content
Total Carbon Dioxide (3.667 times carbon)
Ratio of CO2 Limit 750 Billion Tonnes 2013 -2050
Percent exceeding Limit 750 Billion Tonnes
Ratio of CO2 Limit 1580 Billion Tonnes 2013 -2050
Percent exceeding Limit 1580 Billion Tonnes
Coal
663 billion tonnes
2,321 billion tonnes
3.1
67.7
1.5
31.9
Natural Gas
87 billion tonnes
319 billion tonnes
0.4
 
0.2
 
Crude Oil
98 billion tonnes
359 billion tonnes
0.5
 
0.2
 
Shale Oil
73 billion tonnes
268 billion tonnes
0.4
 
0.2
 
Total without Shale Oil
818 billion tonnes
3,000 billion tonnes
4.0
75.0
1.9
47.3
Total with Shale Oil
891 billion tonnes
3,267 billion tonnes
4.4
77.0
2.1
51.6

© 2013 Dr. John Anderson

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