Tracking Carbon Trail To Find Why So Much Fills the Atmosphere


Wall Street Journal – December 28, 2007

I have written about the Carbon Tracker service before, but this recent article is very interesting in discussing the lack of understanding that we have in our atmosphere.

Where did all of the carbon go?  It is concerning that we are embarking on a global escapade to reduce, tax, and punish carbon dioxide production but we still can’t answer this very basic question! How does a nation effectively tax carbon production when scientists can’t even tell where 25% all carbon dioxide goes? This begs the question as to if we can appropriately tax the correct polluters and reward the correct sinks.

I have repeatedly said that before we spend billions to increase taxes and punishments we need to spend a few million to figure out how to correctly map and understand our atmosphere. Our history is filled with “unintended consequences” as human activity has intertwined with nature. Most of the actions have been because of lack of forethought, understanding, and planning.  Let’s not make the same mistake again with deliberate programs that are supposed to help the situation (but may hurt it if we do it incorrectly). 

This is definitely not a subject where we should experiment and see what works. We need to have well understood actions that can account for a complete understanding of consequences.

One mystery of global warming underlies all others: Nobody knows precisely where all the world’s carbon dioxide ends up every year.

So far, scientists have no reliable way to measure all these fluctuating carbon emissions. Temperature predictions based on future CO2 levels, therefore, could overestimate the risk of greenhouse warming — or dangerously understate it. “A quarter of all the CO2 that is emitted is going somewhere, and we don’t know where,” said David Crisp at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he is senior scientist for the $270 million Orbiting Carbon Observatory, set for launch next December. “That raises a lot of red flags.”

Moreover, as governments try to prevent climate change through emissions trading — where buying and selling emissions rights is expected to top $70 billion by the end of next year — regulators must track CO2 no matter where it comes from or where it goes, to verify transactions.

The U.S., Mexico and Canada together release about 2 billion tons of carbon as CO2 into the air every year — 85% from the U.S. alone — but only about a third of it typically is absorbed by so-called carbon sinks, such as new forests, grasslands, crops and soil. The rest is either in the air or unaccounted for.

Greenhouse-gas emissions were highest in the Midwest, which released more CO2 than any country except Russia, China, India, and the U.S. as a whole. By the same token, CO2 was absorbed mostly east of the Rocky Mountains and in northern Canada, where vast boreal forests hold twice as much carbon as tropical woodlands.

NASA and the Japanese Space Agency expect to launch satellites next year to track global CO2 concentrations almost half a million times a day, in a more precise diagnosis of this planetary carbon catch-and-release system.

In a single week this fall, they reported, wildfires in Southern California released 7.9 million metric tons of CO2 — equal to 25% of the monthly fumes from every car, truck, factory and power plant in the state.

You can read the entire article here.

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