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Climate Regulatory Services Chapter in Our Giving Earth Book 2009

Climate Regulatory Services Chapter in Our Giving Earth Book 2009

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Published by Michael P Totten
Climate Regulatory Services is a chapter written by Michael P. Totten, Chief Advisor, Climate, Conservation International, to appear in the forthcoming (mid-2009) book, Our Giving Earth. It discusses the disruption to the earth's climate regulatory system resulting from humanity annually releasing 40 t0 50 billion tons of greenhouse gases. What are the implications of this, and what can be done to prevent climate catastrophe that looms ahead if we continue business as usual?
Climate Regulatory Services is a chapter written by Michael P. Totten, Chief Advisor, Climate, Conservation International, to appear in the forthcoming (mid-2009) book, Our Giving Earth. It discusses the disruption to the earth's climate regulatory system resulting from humanity annually releasing 40 t0 50 billion tons of greenhouse gases. What are the implications of this, and what can be done to prevent climate catastrophe that looms ahead if we continue business as usual?

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Published by: Michael P Totten on Apr 01, 2009
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06/16/2009

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Climate Regulatory Services
Michael Totten, Chief Advisor, Climate, Freshwater & Ecosystem ServicesConservation International,mtotten@conservation.org Chapter in forthcoming 2009 book,
Our Giving Earth
 
Maintaining the Climate that Supports Life
Past emissions have already committed the world to at least 1° C of warming—sufficientto dramatically alter the planet as we know it. The expected temperature increase of 2° to3° has not been reached in three million years, when sea level was 25 to 35 meters higher than today (Hansen et al., 2007). However, the most recent climate research indicates thatallowing a doubling to 550 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO
2
) poses a high probability of a 6° Celsius temperature rise (Hansen et al., 2008). If humanity wants toavert catastrophic, irreversible climate disasters, it needs to stabilize atmosphericconcentrations below 350 ppm (Hansen et al., 2007; Mathews and Caldeira, 2008).The new insight that society must achieve a CO
2
amount less than the current level is adramatic change from previous studies, which even most recently suggested that thedangerous level of CO
2
was likely to be 450 ppm or higher. The downward change iscaused by realization that “slow” feedback processes not included in most climatemodels—such as ice melt and release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) by the soil, permafrost, and ocean in a warming climate—can occur both remarkably quickly (suchas the sudden release of methane from melting permafrost) and on the time scale of decades and centuries. This realization derives from both new paleoclimate data andongoing observations of global change, especially in the Polar Regions (Hansen et al.,2008; Hansen et al., 2007).Research connecting a rich diversity of disciplines and knowledge domains—notably inearth systems sciences, complex adaptive systems, and ecosystem sciences—is resultingin a veritable flood of critical insights (Canadell et al., 2007; IPCC, 2007; MEA, 2005;Gunderson and Holling, 2001). Among the most impressive and important advancementsin this regard have been in understanding the climate regulatory system and the myriadclimate regulatory services resulting from the interactions of energy, materials, andinformation flows through the geosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere. These climateregulatory services ensure sustained well-being for humanity and life on Earth(Schellnhuber et al., 2006).Humanity’s vast infrastructure—now valued in hundreds of trillions of dollars infinancial, physical, social, and natural capital assets—depends immensely on the stablesea level of the past several thousand years, the recurring seasonal hydrological cyclesand terrestrial rain patterns, the regularity of annual temperature cycles, vegetation patterns, soil conditions and pollination systems, and the plentitude of other processesspawned by the diverse climatically adapted natural ecosystems comprising the biosphere.
The Climate Regulatory System
 
 The multitude of recurring values and benefits from key components comprising theclimate regulatory system cover a vast range of spatial and temporal scales (Steffen et al.,2005; Archer, 2008; Walker and Salt, 2006), and tremendous strides are being made inmapping and modeling the climate system over time. Paleoclimate findings indicate thatrelatively benign climate conditions enabled
 Homo sapiens
to become settled farmers,leading to the dawn of civilization. Indeed, civilization’s rapidly evolving and expandinginfrastructure and societal growth patterns were adapted to the climate zones of the post-glacial Holocene epoch over the past 10,000 to 12,000 years.The Holocene epoch, however, is now being superseded by what some are calling theAnthropocene, in recognition of the planetary impacts the human era is triggering,including changes to Earth’s climate regulatory services (Zalasiewicz et al., 2008;Crutzen, 2002). A key indicator of this dramatic shift is “270 CO
2
e ppmv,” theatmospheric concentration level of radiatively active trace gases (commonly known asGHGs) over the past 10,000 years. The atmospheric global warming potential of thesevarious gases are standardized to CO
2
equivalents in ppm volume given that CO
2
is thedominant gas (after water vapor).GHGs are essential to maintaining the Earth’s temperature. Although comprising lessthan 4/10,000
th
of one percent of total atmospheric gases (99% of which is comprised of nitrogen and oxygen), without them the planet would be uninhabitable by the life formswe recognize. In the absence of the greenhouse effect and an atmosphere, the Earth’saverage surface temperature of 14 °C could be as low as
18 °C. However, humanity’sconsumption of fossil fuels and deforestation over the past two centuries have beensteadily increasing the atmospheric concentration of CO
2
e, to roughly 385 ppmv by 2008.Economic projections and business-as-usual development patterns this century wouldemit several trillion more tons of CO
2
, pushing the concentration level towards 1000 ppmv and triggering catastrophic consequences.The world’s marine phytoplankton, terrestrial forests, vegetation, and soils are major  players in the carbon cycle. Compared to the 700 billion tons of carbon in theatmosphere, several times this amount is stored in forests, vegetation, and soils, and fiftytimes more in the ocean. The top 100 meters of ocean contain thousands of microscopic photosynthesizing phytoplankton in each drop of water. These microscopic organismsabsorb light energy and CO
2
, and convert this into organic molecules for driving their metabolism and creating cellular structures. Through their rapid life-cycle process,marine phytoplankton transfer more than 100 million tons of carbon per day from theatmosphere and upper ocean to the deep sea and ocean sediments, accounting for half of the global biological uptake of CO
2
. This “biological pump” effectively removes theheat-trapping CO
2
from the atmosphere for centuries to millions of years (Falkowski,2002).Regulating GHGs is also one of the most significant ecosystem services provided byforests and soils today. The world’s four billion hectares of forests, roughly 30 percent of them mature, old-growth forests, store an estimated 638 Petagrams (Pg, billion metrictons) of carbon—roughly half in biomass and deadwood and half in soils and litter to a
 
 depth of 30 centimeters (FAO, 2006). The soil carbon in northern peatlands and permafrost, which only a few years ago were estimated to be 850 Pg, is now thought to be double that. Lowland tropical peatlands contain upwards of 100 Pg of carbon depositsas deep as 20 meters (Canadell et al., 2007).
How Much Is the Climate Regulating System Worth?
In a seminal assessment that calculated the annual value of global ecosystem services andnatural capital (Costanza et al., 1997a), the value of gas and climate regulatory services provided by the world’s forests, mangroves, wetlands, grasslands, peatlands, and marine phytoplankton were conservatively estimated in 2008 dollars at roughly US$3 trillion per year. The climate service values are based on a marginal cost of carbon mitigation atroughly US$8 per ton of CO
2
. These are partial valuations, given that the marginalvaluation methods may “dramatically underestimate the economic value of total forestclimate control services” (Costanza et al., 1997b).Human activity is undermining the value of these climate services in direct and indirectways. Directly, the deforestation of roughly 14 million hectares per year, the vastmajority of it in the tropics, emits between five and eight billion tons of CO
2
into theatmosphere (IPCC, 2007). This is roughly 20 percent of total global annual CO
2
 emissions, more than is released by the world’s fleet of vehicles, trucks, railroads,airplanes, and ships combined. Carbon emissions from tropical deforestation and forestdegradation, if not prevented, are expected to increase atmospheric CO2 concentration byas much as 129 ppm in the decades ahead (Stern, 2006).Indirectly, human-triggered CO
2
emissions are acidifying the oceans, reducing the abilityof marine phytoplankton to absorb CO
2
(Doney, 2006; Behrenfeld et al., 2006). Higher temperatures are increasing the frequency and severity of wildfires, droughts, and pestattacks and accelerating the mortality of millions of hectares of forests and the erosion of soil carbon (Westerling et al.
 ,
2006; Page et al., 2002; Schimel and Baker, 2002; Lal,2005).Economists debate which valuation methodology is most appropriate to use indetermining planetary welfare and the social cost of carbon (e.g., marginal abatementcost or marginal damage cost). The difference between the low and high cost estimatescan be more than two orders of magnitude (i.e., from several dollars to several hundreddollars per ton of CO
2
). The lower marginal social cost estimates result from using anarrower frame of reference that tends to minimize or exclude non-market damages,equity concerns, and non-marginal damages (e.g., value of life or impacts on economies beyond their ability to cope effectively with climatic perturbations) (Downing andWatkiss, 2002).More fundamental, however, is that while cost-benefit analyses (CBAs) producingmarginal cost estimates provide useful rankings of the cost-effectiveness and risk profilesfor a range of mitigation options, they do not consider long-term catastrophic impactsoccurring over multi-century and multi-millennia timeframes. A significant fraction of CO
2
emissions remain in the atmosphere and accumulate over geological time spans of 

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