(June 23, 2016) No index better encapsulates the planet’s well-being than global CO2 levels.
This article, by Lawrence Solomon, first appeared in the National Post
This week, France’s national observation service, its Climate and Environment Sciences Laboratory, announced a new milestone: Carbon dioxide concentrations of 400 parts per million (ppm) recorded at its research station on remote Amsterdam Island in the Indian Ocean. Because this island — far from any manmade sources of CO2 — is believed to have the world’s lowest CO2 levels, scientists conclude that the atmosphere of the entire planet now exceeds this landmark level.
Moreover, the French service says, CO2 levels in recent years have been increasing by more than 2 ppm per year, an accelerating rate. Although global warming alarmists fear CO2, especially concentrations above the 350 ppm to 450 ppm range, those climbing CO2 levels augur well. No better single index exists than global CO2 levels to encapsulate the combined economic and environmental well-being of the planet and its peoples.
Like growth in global GDP, which only crudely measures improvements in economic health, the growth in CO2 levels is imperfect as a measure. Yet it has been remarkably consistent over decades at reflecting facts on the ground. First, consider the planet’s economic history. Countless studies have shown that global GDP and global fossil fuel use have pretty much climbed in tandem. While some claim this longstanding relationship may end someday — there are many attempts to “decouple” CO2 emissions and economic growth — it’s unlikely to succeed in the foreseeable future. Energy, after all, drives our economies, 80 per cent of that energy has historically come from fossil fuels and, barring unprecedented government intervention in the world’s energy markets, few see that ratio changing dramatically in the decades to come. In the scenario projected by the World Energy Council to the year 2050, for example, fossil fuel use will represent 77 per cent of world consumption and CO2 emissions will have continued their climb: “current signals indicate that the global economy is not on track to meet the 450 ppm target.”
The planet’s environmental history, if anything, even more conclusively brings to life CO2’s facts on the ground. Before 1979, when satellite technology first became available to measure the amount of plant life on the planet, estimates of our greenery were difficult to measure with any precision and were often anecdotal. Today, we have hard satellite data from NASA and other agencies that show the planet to be greener than ever. The tree line is advancing north and below it forests and other vegetation are thickening. “As human-caused emissions add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, forests worldwide are using it to grow faster, reducing the amount that stays airborne. This effect is called carbon fertilization,” explained a 2014 NASA press release titled “NASA Finds Good News on Forests and Carbon Dioxide.”
As echoed in “Carbon Dioxide: The Good News,” a study last year by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, “The productivity of global ecosystems has increased by 14 per cent in aggregate. Notably, all vegetation types have greened, including tropical rain forests, deciduous and evergreen boreal forests, scrubland, semi-deserts, grasslands and all other wild ecosystems, including those that do not even have indirect input of man-made nitrogen fertilizer.”
While all vegetation types have greened, some regions have benefited more than others. According to a 2007 satellite-based analysis from Beijing Normal University, China’s plant growth increased by 24 per cent over the 1982 to 1999 period, with its northwest region seeing a 29 per cent increase in plant growth and its northeast region and the Tibetan Plateau showing a 30 per cent increase.
None of this is a surprise — plants love CO2, which is why commercial greenhouse operators often enrich their greenhouse air with CO2 levels as high as 1,500 ppm. This greenhouse effect is salutary to crops in the field, too, according to a 2013 study from the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, which estimated that the value of atmospheric CO2 enrichment increased “from $18.5 billion in 1961 to over $140 billion by 2011, amounting to a total sum of $3.2 trillion over the 50-year period 1961-2011.” That’s a lot of extra food, helping to feed our planet’s six billion residents, while also lowering their food bills. CO2 provided another dividend, too: Because existing cropland has become so much more productive, there’s less need to create more of it by razing forests or encroaching on wilderness, leaving nature lovers with more untouched land.
The benefits to the planet of heightened CO2 levels are immense and indisputable. The costs? They are murky at best, the scary scenarios all based on computer models, none of which has held up. Until global alarmists can point to a computer model that’s valid or, even better, real facts on the ground, CO2 levels will remain the world’s best index of planetary health.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe, a Toronto-based environmental group. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.
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