World's oceans soak up MORE carbon than previously thought

World’s oceans soak up 900 million tonnes of CO2 a year MORE than previously thought — the amount emitted by 2.2 billion petrol cars

  • Previous models did not account for temperature differences at different depths 
  • This alters how much carbon is soaked up by the water in total   
  • Researchers believe the world’s oceans actually soak up far more carbon, equivalent to ten per cent of global fossil fuel emissions

The world’s oceans are better at soaking up carbon dioxide than most scientific models have previously found, according to a new study. 

Although emissions of carbon dioxide are easily quantifiable, how much goes into the atmosphere and how much is absorbed by bodies of water is hard to calculate. 

Due to a previous oversight, the oceans may actually soak up an extra 0.9 petagrams of CO2, the same as 900 million metric tonnes. 

One petrol car averaging 9,000 miles a year, 40 miles to the gallon and 0.4kg of CO2 a mile will produce 408 kg of CO2 a year. 

Therefore, 900 million metric tonnes of CO2 equates to the same amount of CO2 emissions as approximately 2.2 billion cars.  

The researchers say this is equivalent to ten per cent of global fossil fuel emissions. 

Although emissions of carbon dioxide are easily quantifiable, how much goes into the atmosphere and how much is absorbed by bodies of water is hard to calculate. Due to a previous oversight, the oceans may actually far more carbon, equivalent to ten per cent of global fossil fuel emissions.

This additional figure is on top of the already known carbon absorption of the world’s oceans which is around two petagrams, the same as around 25 per cent of all CO2 emissions from humans. 

Carbon flux is a term used to describe the movement of the greenhouse gas. 

Previous estimates of flux have neglected to take into account temperature differences at the water’s surface compared to a few metres below.

Researchers from the University of Exeter factored this into their calculations and found it made a significant impact on how much carbon is trapped in oceans. 

They worked out total CO2 flux from 1992 to 2018 and found that by accounting for the subsurface water, total carbon movement doubled in some places.    

‘Half of the carbon dioxide we emit doesn’t stay in the atmosphere but is taken up by the oceans and land vegetation ‘sinks’,’ said Professor Andrew Watson, of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute. 

‘Previous studies that have done this have, however, ignored small temperature differences between the surface of the ocean and the depth of a few metres where the measurements are made.

‘Those differences are important because carbon dioxide solubility depends very strongly on temperature.

‘We used satellite data to correct for these temperature differences, and when we do that it makes a big difference – we get a substantially larger flux going into the ocean.

‘The difference in ocean uptake we calculate amounts to about 10 per cent of global fossil fuel emissions.’ 

Less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and more in the oceans is a double-edged sword for experts. 

Carbon dioxide in the marine environment literally turns the water more acidic, causing coral bleaching and forcing many animals to flee to more hospitable regions.

However, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a major driver of global warming  

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.    

Revealed: MailOnline dissects the impact greenhouse gases have on the planet – and what is being done to stop air pollution

Emissions

Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. After the gas is released into the atmosphere it stays there, making it difficult for heat to escape – and warming up the planet in the process. 

It is primarily released from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as cement production. 

The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was just 280 ppm. 

CO2 concentration has fluctuated over the last 800,000 years between 180 to 280ppm, but has been vastly accelerated by pollution caused by humans. 

Nitrogen dioxide 

The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers used in agriculture.

Although there is far less NO2 in the atmosphere than CO2, it is between 200 and 300 times more effective at trapping heat.

Sulfur dioxide 

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts.

SO2 can react with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to cause acid rain. 

Carbon monoxide 

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them. Hydroxyl radicals reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. 

Particulates

What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter refers to tiny parts of solids or liquid materials in the air. 

Some are visible, such as dust, whereas others cannot be seen by the naked eye. 

Materials such as metals, microplastics, soil and chemicals can be in particulate matter.

Particulate matter (or PM) is described in micrometres. The two main ones mentioned in reports and studies are PM10 (less than 10 micrometres) and PM2.5 (less than 2.5 micrometres).

Air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, cars, cement making and agriculture 

Scientists measure the rate of particulates in the air by cubic metre.

Particulate matter is sent into the air by a number of processes including burning fossil fuels, driving cars and steel making.

Why are particulates dangerous?

Particulates are dangerous because those less than 10 micrometres in diameter can get deep into your lungs, or even pass into your bloodstream. Particulates are found in higher concentrations in urban areas, particularly along main roads. 

Health impact

What sort of health problems can pollution cause?

According to the World Health Organization, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can be linked to air pollution. 

Some of the effects of air pollution on the body are not understood, but pollution may increase inflammation which narrows the arteries leading to heart attacks or strokes. 

As well as this, almost one in 10 lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by air pollution. 

Particulates find their way into the lungs and get lodged there, causing inflammation and damage. As well as this, some chemicals in particulates that make their way into the body can cause cancer. 

Deaths from pollution 

Around seven million people die prematurely because of air pollution every year. Pollution can cause a number of issues including asthma attacks, strokes, various cancers and cardiovascular problems. 

 

Asthma triggers

Air pollution can cause problems for asthma sufferers for a number of reasons. Pollutants in traffic fumes can irritate the airways, and particulates can get into your lungs and throat and make these areas inflamed. 

Problems in pregnancy 

Women exposed to air pollution before getting pregnant are nearly 20 per cent more likely to have babies with birth defects, research suggested in January 2018.

Living within 3.1 miles (5km) of a highly-polluted area one month before conceiving makes women more likely to give birth to babies with defects such as cleft palates or lips, a study by University of Cincinnati found.

For every 0.01mg/m3 increase in fine air particles, birth defects rise by 19 per cent, the research adds. 

Previous research suggests this causes birth defects as a result of women suffering inflammation and ‘internal stress’. 

What is being done to tackle air pollution? 

Paris agreement on climate change

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. 

It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.

Carbon neutral by 2050 

The UK government has announced plans to make the country carbon neutral by 2050. 

They plan to do this by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export its carbon offsetting to other countries.

International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.

No new petrol or diesel vehicles by 2040

In 2017, the UK government announced the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2040. 

From around 2020, town halls will be allowed to levy extra charges on diesel drivers using the UK’s 81 most polluted routes if air quality fails to improve.

However,  MPs on the climate change committee have urged the government to bring the ban forward to 2030, as by then they will have an equivalent range and price.

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. Pictured: air pollution over Paris in 2019.

Norway’s electric car subsidies

The speedy electrification of Norway’s automotive fleet is attributed mainly to generous state subsidies. Electric cars are almost entirely exempt from the heavy taxes imposed on petrol and diesel cars, which makes them competitively priced.

A VW Golf with a standard combustion engine costs nearly 334,000 kroner (34,500 euros, $38,600), while its electric cousin the e-Golf costs 326,000 kroner thanks to a lower tax quotient. 

Criticisms of inaction on climate change

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said there is a ‘shocking’ lack of Government preparation for the risks to the country from climate change. 

The committee assessed 33 areas where the risks of climate change had to be addressed – from flood resilience of properties to impacts on farmland and supply chains – and found no real progress in any of them.

The UK is not prepared for 2°C of warming, the level at which countries have pledged to curb temperature rises, let alone a 4°C rise, which is possible if greenhouse gases are not cut globally, the committee said.

It added that cities need more green spaces to stop the urban ‘heat island’ effect, and to prevent floods by soaking up heavy rainfall. 

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