Greenhouse gases will heat up planet 'for ever'

New study shows the effects of CO2 pollution will be felt for hundreds of thousands of years

A A A

Global warming is for ever, some of the world's top climate scientists have concluded. Their research shows that carbon dioxide emitted from today's homes, cars and factories will continue to heat up the planet for hundreds of thousands of years.

Their findings – which contradict a widespread belief that the atmosphere would recover quickly once humanity stopped polluting it – come at the beginning of the most crucial week for the climate this year. Tomorrow Britain's powerful Climate Change Committee will lay out a road map to put the country on track to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. At the same time, the world's governments will meet in Poznan, in Poland, to try to set the world on the path to agreeing a new international treaty next year, billed as the last chance to keep global warming to tolerable levels.

The new research will add to the pressure on ministers at home and abroad to take radical steps. And it will add urgency to attempts to find ways of removing excess carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, as well as trying to prevent further emissions.

It comes as a shock because most governments, and even many scientists, have assumed that carbon dioxide emissions would work their way out of the atmosphere in about a century, enabling it to clean itself fairly rapidly once the world switched to clean sources of energy.

But one of the main researchers – Professor David Archer of Chicago University – warns that "the climatic impacts of releasing fossil fuel carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will last longer than Stonehenge, longer than time capsules, far longer than the age of human civilisation so far. Ultimate recovery takes place on timescales of hundreds of thousands of years, a geologic longevity typically associated in public perceptions with nuclear waste."

Carbon dioxide mainly leaves the atmosphere by being soaked up by the oceans, but Professor Archer says that "the pervasive notion in the climate science community and in the public at large" that this happens relatively quickly is no longer valid. He and other leading scientists spell out why in a paper to be published in the journal Annual Reviews of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

"The ocean is getting fed up with absorbing our CO2," he says. The surface waters, about 100 metres deep, which used to sop up the gas quite fast, are now getting saturated with it – turning acid in the process – and so decreasing their uptake. They need to be replaced with fresh water from deep down, but this overturning circulation "takes centuries or a millennium". And global warming is expected to slow this down: the hotter the surface layer becomes, the longer the replenishment takes.

Indeed, the forthcoming paper will add, research shows that even this renewing process will not be enough to remove all the vast amounts of carbon dioxide that humanity is now adding to the atmosphere. Much of it will have to wait hundreds of thousands of years before being removed by another, infinitely slower, process: the natural weathering of rocks, which incorporates the gas into other substances. And the more pollution that is emitted now, the worse this will become.

Research by another of the paper's authors, Professor Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institute for Science, in Stanford, California, adds another alarming twist to the story. He was surprised to find that even after the pollution stops, the Earth's temperature will not start to fall but will settle at a new, higher level.

Professor James Hansen, director of Nasa's Goddard Institute of Space Studies, and perhaps the world's most revered climate scientist, warns that the "long lifetime of carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuel burning" means that just slowing down emissions is no solution. Instead, he says, some of the fuels must "be left in the ground" for ever, and that the gas must actually be removed from the air.

He proposes removing carbon dioxide by growing trees, which soak it up as they grow, and then burning them to produce electricity and capturing the gas before it is emitted. He also proposes that no more coal-fired power stations be built.

Tomorrow's report by the Climate Change Committee – chaired by Lord Turner, who also heads the Financial Services Authority – is expected to discourage the construction of new coal-fired stations, such as the one proposed for Kingsnorth in Kent.

To have your say on this or any other issue visit www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions