Chapter on Climate Regulatory Services

Michael P. Totten

1.

Maintaining the climate that supports life

Research connecting a rich diversity of disciplines and knowledge domains – notably in earth systems sciences, complex adaptive systems, and ecosystem sciences -- is resulting in a veritable flood of critical insights (IGBP 2007; IPCC 2007; MEA 2005; Gunderson and Holling, 2001). Among the most impressive and important advancements in this regard have been in understanding the climate regulatory system, and the myriad of climate regulatory services resulting from the interactions of energy, materials and information flows through the geosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere. These climate regulatory services ensure sustained well-being for humanity and life on earth (Schellnhuber, Crutzen, Clark, Claussen and Held, 2006). The multitude of recurring values and benefits from key components comprising the climate regulatory system cover a vast range of spatial and temporal scales (IGBP, 2005; Archer, 2008; Walker and Salt, 2006). Tremendous strides are being made in mapping and modeling the climate system. Paleoclimate findings indicate that relatively benign climate conditions enabled Homo sapiens to become settled farmers, lead to the dawn of civilization. Indeed, civilization’s rapidly evolving and expanding infrastructure 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. Humanity's vast infrastructure, now valued in hundreds of trillions of dollars in financial, physical, social and natural capital assets, depends immensely on the stable sea level of the past several thousand years, the recurring seasonal hydrological cycles and terrestrial rain patterns, the regularity of annual

Economic projections and business-as-usual development patterns this century would emit several trillion more tons of CO2. 2002). Although comprising less than 4/10. to roughly 385 ppmv by 2008. however. Lowland tropical peatlands contain upwards of 100 Pg of carbon deposits as deep as 20 meters (Canadell et al. the atmospheric concentration level of radiatively active trace gases (commonly known as greenhouse gases) over the past 10. billion metric tons) of carbon – roughly half in biomass and deadwood and half in soils and litter to a depth of 30 centimeters (FAO. These microscopic organisms absorb light energy and CO2. in recognition of the planetary impacts the human era is triggering. roughly 30 percent of them mature. and convert this into organic molecules for driving their metabolism and creating cellular structures. 2007). The world's four billion hectares of forests. Regulating greenhouse gases is also one of the most significant ecosystem services provided by forests and soils today. is now being superseded by what some are calling the Anthropocene. without them the planet would be uninhabitable by the life forms we recognize. 2002). vegetation and soils. This "biological pump" effectively removes the heat-trapping CO2 from the atmosphere for centuries to millions of years (Falkowski.000th of one per cent of total atmospheric gases (99% of which is comprised of nitrogen and oxygen). vegetation and soils are major players in the carbon cycle. 2008. is now thought to be double that. including changes to Earth's climate regulatory services (Zalasiewicz. The Holocene epoch. 2006). and 50 times more in the ocean. vegetation patterns. old-growth forests. several times this amount is stored in forests. Greenhouse gases are essential to maintaining the Earth's temperature. which only a few years ago were estimated to be 850 Pg. Crutzen. pushing the concentration level towards 1000 ppmv and triggering catastrophic consequences (see below). and terrestrial forests. accounting for half of the global biological uptake of carbon dioxide. The soil carbon in northern peatlands and permafrost. The atmospheric global warming potential of these various gases are standardized to carbon dioxide equivalents in parts per million volume given that CO2 is the dominant gas (after water vapor). The top 100 meters of ocean contain thousands of microscopic photosynthesizing phytoplankton in each drop of water.000 years. CO2 resulting from humanity's consumption of fossil fuels and deforestation over the past two centuries have been steadily increasing the atmospheric concentration of CO2e. The world's marine phytoplankton. store an estimated 638 Petagrams (Pg. Compared to the 700 billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere. However. 2 . A key indicator of this dramatic shift is "270 CO2e ppmv". In the absence of the greenhouse effect and an atmosphere. soil conditions and pollination systems.temperature cycles. the Earth's average surface temperature of 14 °C could be as low as −18 °C. and the plentitude of other processes spawned by the diverse climatically adapted natural ecosystems comprising the biosphere. Through their rapid life cycle process. marine phytoplankton transfer more than 100 million tons of carbon per day from the atmosphere and upper ocean to the deep sea and ocean sediments.

2007). Economists debate which valuation methodology is most appropriate to use in determining planetary welfare and the social cost of carbon. From this vantage point. emits between five and eight billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere (IPCC. trucks. 2002. or impacts on economies beyond their ability to cope effectively with climatic perturbations) (Downing and Watkiss. and accumulate over geological time spans of tens to hundreds of thousands of years.. however.. 2006). airplanes and ships combined. CBA's are "especially and unusually 3 . but real threat of extinction of most life on earth. 2006). grasslands. railroads. value of life. and non-marginal damages (e. reducing the ability of marine phytoplankton to absorb CO2 (Doney 2006. more than is released by the world's fleet of vehicles. How much is the climate regulating system worth? In a seminal assessment that calculated the annual value of global ecosystem services and natural capital (Costanza et al. The lower marginal social cost estimates result from using a narrower frame of reference that tend to minimize or exclude non-market damages. The difference between the low and high cost estimates can be more than two orders of magnitude (i. 2002). These are partial valuations..e. 2005). Page et al. Human activity is undermining the value of these climate services in direct and indirect ways. the value of gas and climate regulatory services provided by the world's forests. human-triggered CO2 emissions are acidifying the oceans. wetlands. marginal abatement cost or marginal damage cost. Lal. 2006. Directly. Carbon emissions from tropical deforestation and forest degradation. Higher temperatures are increasing the frequency and severity of wildfires. Behrenfeld et al.. from several dollars to several hundred dollars per ton CO2). is that while cost-benefit analyses (CBA) producing marginal cost estimates provide useful rankings of the cost-effectiveness and risk profiles for a range of mitigation options. peatlands and marine phytoplankton were conservatively estimated at roughly $3 trillion per year (2008$). 1997b).. given that the marginal valuation methods may "dramatically underestimate the economic value of total forest climate control services" (Costanza et al. More fundamental. are expected to increase atmospheric CO2 concentration by as much as 129 ppm in the decades ahead (Stern. 2002. equity concerns.g.2. e. This is roughly 20 percent of total global annual CO2 emissions. and accelerating the mortality of millions of hectares of forests and the erosion of soil carbon (Westerling et al. the deforestation of roughly 14 million hectares per year. Schimel and Baker. raising the lurid. Indirectly. the vast majority of it in the tropics. The climate service values are based on a marginal cost of carbon mitigation at roughly $8 per ton CO2 (2008$). they do not consider long-term catastrophic impacts occurring over multi-century and multi-millennia timeframes. mangroves. if not prevented. droughts and pest attacks.g. 1997a). A significant fraction of CO2 emissions remain in the atmosphere.

This realization derives from both new paleoclimate data and ongoing observations of global change. such as ice melt and release of greenhouse gases by the soil. i. 2008). climate stabilization at any level can only be achieved if net global CO2 emissions decline to the level of persistent natural sinks. 2008)..e. The expected temperature increase of 2-3° has not been reached in three million years. building anti-ballistic missile shields." and a more illuminating and constructive analysis would be determining the level of "catastrophe insurance" needed: "rough comparisons could perhaps be made with the potentially-huge payoffs. Hansen et al. the most recent climate research indicates that allowing a doubling to 550 ppm poses a high probability of a 6° Celsius temperature rise (Hansen et al. permafrost and ocean in a warming climate. policies and regulations for 4 . 2007. when sea level was 25 to 35 meters higher than today (Hansen et al. 3. 2008). and marine phytoplankton. already sufficient to dramatically alter the planet as we know it. How is the climate threatened Past emissions have already committed the world to at least 1° C of warming. The downward change is caused by realization that "slow" feedback processes not included in most climate models. can occur both remarkably quickly (such as the sudden release of methane from melting permafrost) and on the time scale of decades and centuries.S. This poses a challenge unprecedented in human history: essentially growing the current $40 trillion annual global economy by two to three percent per year while swiftly moving to near zero emissions. Several decades of evidence-based results by individuals. and significant costs involved in countering terrorism. especially in the Polar Regions (Hansen et al. small probabilities. while also phasing out existing coal plants which annually emit 11 Pg CO2.misleading. already spends approximately 3% of national income on the cost of a clean environment" (Weitzman. 2008. irreversible climate disasters it needs to stabilize atmospheric concentrations below 350 ppm (Hansen et al. or neutralizing hostile dictatorships possibly harboring weapons of mass destruction…A crude natural metric for calibrating cost estimates of climate-change environmental-insurance policies might be that the U. which even most recently suggested that the dangerous level of CO2 was likely to be 450 ppm or higher. The new insight that society must achieve a CO2 amount less than the current level is a dramatic change from previous studies.. 4. If humanity wants to avert catastrophic. communities. Mathews and Caldeira. 2007). soils. 2006).. or just a few percent of today’s emissions (House et al. 2008). and halting global deforestation which annually emits 5 to 8 Pg CO2. However. Getting our climate back Ultimately. This amounts to about one Pg of carbon per year. states and nations around the world have demonstrated best practices. cities. absorption by forests.

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