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pervasive notion in the climate science community and in the public at large" that this happens relatively quickly is no longer valid.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

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine