Carbon Emissions is going to make our life easy
What would imagine if aliens ever landed on our Earth and gifted us a clean, limitless energy source? And despite being killed over this technology, it is decided to transform the world into carbon emissions. This wondrous source would power our homes, industries, cars or planes, and humanity’s annual rate of carbon pollution would almost instantly fall to zero. So, if we kicked the carbon addiction tomorrow, what would that mean for global warming? Would the climate suddenly go back to the cooler, calmer atmosphere humans lived under before the industrial revolution?
Not exactly it would happen as such. But the climate would continue to change and temperatures would remain high for many, many centuries. And that is not at all great, as we have been told for years that slashing greenhouse gas pollution is the key to tackling climate change. But unfortunately, those cuts wouldn’t immediately stop the planet from warming up. One reason is that over the last fifty years, 90% of the extra warming has gone into the oceans. It takes decades for oceans to heat up, but once you quit adding additional heat they would still give off the heat that had previously accumulated. It is kind of how a pot of boiling water continues to give off heat long after turning off the stove. Because water heats up slowly, it cools off slowly too. And as all this extra heat fully mixes in the deep ocean, the ocean would continue to expand, raising sea levels for centuries.
The other reason Earth would stay hot is that because of CO2 molecules – which cause more than 80% of the warming – remain in the atmosphere for a remarkably long time. If you burn 5 gallons of gas today, you create about 100 pounds of CO2. But way off in the year 3000, as much as 40 pounds of that gas will still be floating in the sky, warming up the planet. Earth has warmed by about 0.8 degrees Celsius since the industrial revolution. If we turned off greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, shorter-lived greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide would be chemically broken down and dissipate first. That will cause the atmosphere to cool by maybe half a degree, over about a century. But CO2 is such a long-lived molecule; it would keep the Earth warmer for at least 2,000 years. It stays in the atmosphere way longer because of its chemically stable nature.
So, many of the impacts we are experiencing now, like the melting Arctic, drier droughts, and fearful thunderstorms would probably also continue. In the end, CO2 might take as long as 1,00,000 years to finally return to pre-industrial levels. So, even if all the emissions would cut tomorrow, the truth is we are guaranteed some amount of climate change and warmer temperatures. But switching to carbon-free energy systems would still give us a lot of benefits immediately including health. Over three million people worldwide breathe air that is so polluted that it doesn’t mean World Health Organizations guidelines. Air pollution from fossil fuels or stoves is thought to cause more than 5 billion deaths per year, thanks to things like lung cancer, heart disease, or stroke. The majority of those deaths occur in developing countries, where there is more pollution.
So halting fossil fuel burning would immediately improve the lives of millions of people. Wild places would also benefit. Some of the most pristine environments contain plentiful fossil fuels. Stopping emissions would mean ending fossil fuel extraction, which means less construction in wild areas, less noise pollution and cleaner air and water. Halting emissions sooner rather than later means that future generations might still face climate impacts, but they will probably be less severe. With each degree of additional warming, the amount of area burned by wildfire doubles also reducing crop yields by as much as 10%. Lowering emissions means fewer fatalities in extreme weather, fewer severe storms, and more children spared the hardship of migration to cooler places. And, maybe there could be the possibility in the near future when someone develops technologies to actually suck the extra carbon straight out of the sky that speeds up the cooling. The idea of aliens providing us with a magical energy source is, of course, a fantasy. But today, we are already installing real clean energy technologies that could wean us off fossil fuels, things like solar cells and wind turbines. The decisions that we are taking today will affect not only our grandchildren but their grandchildren’s would be affected too. Our addiction to carbon has put us and our descendants into the deep hole.