How China accidentally geoengineered the climate  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

Grist has a post discussing the idea that growing Chinese coal consumption over the past decade released enough sulphur to mask global warming during that period - How China accidentally geoengineered the climate.

Between 2003 and 2007, China burned so much coal that it increased global consumption of the stuff 25 percent. That put so much sulfur into the air that it more or less literally (temporarily) blotted out the sun, masking some of the global warming that otherwise would have occurred during the first decade of the 21st century.

Deliberately putting sulfur into the atmosphere has been proposed as a means of “geoengineering” Earth’s climate, in order to cool the planet temporarily while we figure out a way to get off all these carbon-rich fossil fuels. So, in a way, China’s gigantic exercise in coal burning was an unintentional experiment in geoengineering using atmospheric sulfur. The results are in: it worked. A new paper [PDF] in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that there is little observed warming of the planet from 1998 to 2008 for a number of reasons, but an important one is that all that sulfur helped cool the planet.

Sulfur doesn't stay in the atmosphere long -- on the order of months -- but the carbon dioxide from all that coal we burned has a half life of centuries. This means we're now in for a double whammy: our industrial pollution is actually hiding some of the global warming that's already occurring, plus pumping out greenhouse gases that will keep warming worsening for decades to come. Think of it like getting punched repeatedly in the face, but taking an aspirin every time. It’ll make the bleeding worse, but at least you won’t feel it right away!

1 comments

Global warming took a break following World War II as industry, especially in the US, rapidly grew and burned tremendous amounts of coal in dirty plants. The years during which we pumped lots of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere is referred to as the period of Global Dimming and global warming slowed down.

We, in the US, cleaned up our coal plants because of the effects of acid rain on our forests and lakes and the health problems we were experiencing.

A couple of years back China closed about 7,000 old, inefficient coal plants and those plants built since have been 'state of the art' in terms of efficiency. I would assume they also scrub their emissions stream as well.

Look for a big jump in global heat as the sulfur sunscreen drops away and all the CO2 we've continually pumped into our atmosphere traps heat.

We're in trouble....

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