China Contributes 10% of Human Influence on Climate Change
China accounts for a tenth of all the greenhouse gases and aerosols that have collected in the atmosphere over the industrial era, according to new research.
Boasting one of the world’s largest economies, China has overtaken the EU and the U.S. as the world’s largest emitter, with CO2 emissions from fossil fuels tripling over the past 30 years.
It’s a pretty complicated picture. But in recent times, this is because cooling from aerosols has been masking part of the warming signal. The upshot of this is that cutting some types of aerosol in a much-needed bid to improve air quality could drive faster warming in the coming decades, say the authors.
The new study quantifies all the gases and particles currently in the atmosphere that are having an effect on global temperature and which can be traced back to human activity.
The authors combined this with China’s past and present emissions to estimate, for the first time, the size of the country’s total contribution to human-caused climate change.
Unlike aerosols, greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for a very long time. Carbon dioxide emitted at the start of the industrial revolution is still warming the atmosphere today, which is why scientists take into account historical emissions as well as present day ones to work out a country’s contribution to climate change.
The graph below (main, not inset) shows the impact on global temperature—known as the radiative forcing—from different anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gases in China extending back to 1850.
China’s single biggest source of warming is CO2 from fossil fuel burning (red line). With emissions rising steeply over the past few decades, fossil fuels overtook land-use change as the biggest source of CO2 from China in 1992 (brown line).
Warming as a result of changing land use rose throughout the 20th century, before declining in the 1980s as reforestation programs turned the land from a net emitter to a net absorber.
“China is now planting forests on a larger scale than anywhere else on the planet. These plantations sequester CO2 from the atmosphere, so that Chinese forests are now a net sink of this gas.”
Despite this, past emissions from land-use change still account for a third of atmospheric CO2 attributable to China, with fossil-fuel burning making up the other two thirds, the paper notes.
The warming caused by emissions of nitrous oxide (yellow) and halogen compounds (pink) increased over the past two or three decades—to a far lesser extent than fossil fuel CO2, while methane-induced warming increased three-fold between 1950-2010 (orange line).
To put the changes within China into a global context, the inset graph in the figure above shows the warming effect of Chinese greenhouse gases as a percentage of the global total.
Again, the impact of China’s recent fossil fuel expansion is clear, with the country’s contribution to total global fossil fuel CO2 almost tripling in the 30-year period between 1980-2010.
China currently accounts for 12 percent of the total greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—a figure that has remained fairly steady over the industrial period, at around 8-12 percent (blue line). This is effectively the balance of impacts from all China’s greenhouse gas emissions over time—i.e. carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and halogen compounds—and from all anthropogenic sources.
The 10 percent figure is lower than might be expected for the country topping of the list of the biggest emitters. But it reflects the fact that others, such as the U.S. and the EU, have been emitting far longer, the paper notes. The paper does not calculate the contributions from these other entities, so a direct comparison is not possible.
Relative to the rest of the world, China’s share of greenhouse gas warming fell slightly in the 1960s, 70s and 80s before starting to climb again as economic growth and fossil fuel burning accelerated.
But there’s something else going on, too. China is responsible for a disproportionate amount of the aerosols emitted around the world, some of which have a strong cooling effect.
According to the new study’s results, China is responsible for 28 percent of the sulphate aerosols currently in the atmosphere (light blue bar in the graph below), 24 percent of nitrate aerosols (dark blue) and 14 percent of black carbon (pink).
Importantly, while the U.S. and Europe have been slashing sulphates in an effort to improve air quality, China’s aerosol emissions have been on the rise. Spracklen said:
“Air pollution is a serious environmental issue in China, where 1.3m people die each year because of exposure to poor-quality air outdoors.”
As well as posing a growing public health crisis, sulphate aerosols have a strong cooling effect. Over the past few decades, this has been pulling in the opposite direction to rising CO2, methane and black carbon emissions, effectively muting China’s relative impact on global temperature.
As the graph below from Spracklen’s News and Views article shows, the balance between warming (red shading) and cooling (blue shading) have kept the country’s contribution to human-caused climate change pegged at about 10 percent in recent decades, despite soaring fossil fuel emissions.
The implication is that if China follows the rest of the world in cutting sulphate aerosols in a bid to reduce air pollution, global temperatures could rise even faster in the coming decades since there would be less of a cooling effect to offset the warming. But this is no reason to avoid doing it, said Spracklen:
“This means that it will be difficult to achieve rapid reductions in near-term global warming through the control of Chinese air pollutants overall—a focus on greenhouse-gas emissions, in particular, will be required.”
But given the upwards trend in fossil fuel CO2 emissions, the long lifetimes of existing infrastructure and the social and political systems in place, it is “unlikely” that China’s relative contribution to global greenhouse gas warming will come down any time soon, say the authors in the paper.
While the study goes further than previous ones in terms of pinning down China’s total contribution to climate change, the authors acknowledge a lot of remaining uncertainty, particularly about China’s methane and sulphur dioxide emissions.
There is also work to be done in completing the complex picture of influencing factors. For example, the authors acknowledge the role of aerosols in stimulating clouds to form and the darkening of snow and ice by black carbon, adding that there is still too much uncertainty to include fully in their calculations.
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By Heather Houser
Compost. Fly less. Reduce your meat consumption. Say no to plastic. These imperatives are familiar ones in the repertoire of individual actions to reduce a person's environmental impact. Don't have kids, or maybe just one. This climate action appears less frequently in that repertoire, but it's gaining currency as climate catastrophes mount. One study has shown that the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from having one fewer child in the United States is 20 times higher—yes 2000% greater—than the impact of lifestyle changes like those listed above.
The Stickiness of Population<p>Only five years ago, there was minimal coverage of the child-free for climate movement. AOC is just one of many reasons it's lighting up now. New scientific analyses, scholarly debates, and social media conversations have shined a light on reproduction and climate. The influential <a href="https://www.drawdown.org/" target="_blank">Project Drawdown</a> framework for climate mitigation includes a list of solutions ranked by their potential impact, two of which—educating girls and providing access to family planning—they project will have <a href="https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/table-of-solutions" target="_blank">a greater combined impact</a> on reducing greenhouse gas emissions than almost all other climate solutions because of their effect on fertility rates.</p><p>In January 2020, <a href="https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/70/1/8/5610806" target="_blank">11,000 scientists signed onto a study that warned</a> about the unfolding climate emergency. The authors prescribe steps in six sectors that can prevent irreversible planetary collapse, including that "the world population must be stabilized—and, ideally, gradually reduced—within a framework that ensures social integrity." The framework they propose includes universal access to family planning as well as education and equity for young women. (Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1410465111" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">scientific takes</a> on population-based climate actions are more skeptical about their immediate impact given the scale of fertility reductions needed to balance out longer lifespans.)</p><p>Even before 2020, a new movement was afoot to address climate by forgoing reproduction. Blythe Pepino, a British musician in her 30s, formed BirthStrike in 2018 to build a community of people—typically women-identified—who have opted not to reproduce in response to the ecological and social crises that climate change is creating. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, the group recognized the need to acknowledge the oppression that colors conversations about reproduction as it relates to climate and so reformed itself into a support group for those grieving parenthood. Their new stated goal is to channel that loss into action on climate justice.</p><p>Organizations such as <a href="https://conceivablefuture.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Conceivable Future</a>, however, continue to keep reproduction at the fore. Led by climate activists Meghan Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli, Conceivable Future is raising awareness about how the climate crisis affects "<a href="https://conceivablefuture.org/about" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intimate choices</a>" like reproduction. The Conceivable Future and now-defunct BirthStrike campaigns share ideological terrain with "<a href="https://www.npr.org/2016/08/18/479349760/should-we-be-having-kids-in-the-age-of-climate-change" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">population engineers</a>," a group of bioethicists who <a href="https://doi.org/10.5840/soctheorpract201642430" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">forward policies for</a> limiting the size of the global population through positive incentives like family planning classes and negative ones such as taxes on wealthy procreators. </p><p>In proposing specific policies rather than individual action, population engineers acknowledge the structures within which reproductive choices occur, everything from media influence to the tax code. Even with this shift to the structural, however, the racist, sexist, colonialist, and nativist legacies of the population question within environmentalism still plague child-free for climate. As do the historical and social injustices that constrain so-called choices.</p>
Racism and Xenophobia in Environmentalism<p>This summer and fall, the climate crisis and its correlated catastrophes—<a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/heat-wave-western-united-states/" target="_blank">extreme heat</a>, <a href="https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/07/14/a-third-of-bangladesh-underwater-after-heavy-rains-floods/" target="_blank">flooding</a>, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/wildfires" target="_blank">wildfires</a>—are intensifying alongside Black Lives Matter uprisings and the <a href="http://www.yesmagazine.org/health-happiness/2020/06/09/coronavirus-public-health-social-justice/" target="_blank">coronavirus health disparities</a> among Black, Indigenous, and Latinx populations. This confluence has brought overdue attention to racism in environmentalism, as evidenced by the Audubon Society's recent <a href="http://audubon.org/magazine/fall-2020/revealing-past-create-future" target="_blank">reckoning</a> with racial injustices in its past and present, including <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/the-myth-john-james-audubon" target="_blank">publicizing</a> that its famed founder was a White supremacist and a slaveholder. The intersections of <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/opinion/2020/09/23/election-black-voters-climate/" target="_blank">climate justice and racial justice</a> have also come to the fore through <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/05/climate/heat-minority-school-performance.html" target="_blank">studies of how Black communities are greatly harmed by hotter temperatures</a> and through the popular <a href="https://www.intersectionalenvironmentalist.com/" target="_blank">intersectional environmentalist</a> platform created by Leah Thomas, a young Black activist and "<a href="https://www.greengirlleah.com/about-1" target="_blank">eco-communicator</a>." To these reckonings we need to add the racism and xenophobia that have long characterized environmentally motivated population controls.</p><p>The New York Times recently exposed these sins in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/14/us/anti-immigration-cordelia-scaife-may.html/" target="_blank">a profile of Cordelia Scaife May</a>, showing how this heir to the Mellon fortune converted a love of birding into a network of anti-immigration, pro-population-control organizations that still influence politics today. In the 1960s May linked threatened birdlife to the rapidly expanding human population. May wasn't wrong to see and worry over this link: A host of human activities—from <a href="https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/popular-pesticides-linked-drops-bird-population-180951971/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">toxic agriculture and industry</a> to <a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.0050157" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sprawling settlements</a> and <a href="https://www.npr.org/2017/10/05/555949789/light-pollution-can-impact-noctural-bird-migration" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">light</a> and <a href="https://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/blogs/birds-live-near-human-noise-sing-louder-shorter-songs" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">noise pollution</a>—decimate avian habitats and habits. May's anti-immigration approach, however, indicates how readily environmentalism can mutate into racist and xenophobic actions.</p><p>The Times investigators show that "protecting natural habitats and helping women prevent unplanned pregnancies merged over time into a single goal of preserving the environment by discouraging offspring altogether." Taken on its own, this goal resonates with Conceivable Future's and population engineers' aims. To be clear, this does not mean that today's child-free climate advocates are racist nativists. However, it does indicate how readily the affiliation arises because of the ugly history of forced population control.</p>
Contemporary Examples<p>And this history is hardly past. For example, race and class conflicts erupted around a population platform within the Sierra Club only 15 years ago. In 2004, a faction of club members took a page from May and argued that more people living in the U.S. meant more encroachment on less developed land and water. As with May's effort, this anti-immigration push amounted to "the greening of hate," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League, who entered the dispute when they found White supremacists lobbying for anti-immigration Sierra Club board candidates. A 2010 <a href="https://www.splcenter.org/20100630/greenwash-nativists-environmentalism-and-hypocrisy-hate" target="_blank">SPLC report</a> firms up the connection between environmentalist intentions and racist agendas by explaining why White nationalist John Tanton infiltrated the club: "Using an organization perceived by the public as part of the liberal left would insulate nativists from charges of racism—charges that … would likely otherwise stick."</p><p>Charges of racism ultimately did stick to Tanton and his anti-immigration, pro-population-control allies. And they continue to stick in analyses of the child-free for climate movement today. Earlier this year, climate journalist Meehan Crist <a href="https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n05/meehan-crist/is-it-ok-to-have-a-child" target="_blank">took up</a> AOC's question of whether it's OK to have a child. In arriving at an answer (for her, yes), she affiliates child-free positions with "anti-feminist, racist and anti-human" values and with bad science. "Darker visions" proceed from this analysis, she writes, visions of those who believe "racial purity will save the planet. Closed borders. . . . Ecofascist death squads." The dark visions Crist spins from the child-free for climate question underscore how readily calls for reproductive limits touch the third rails of modern environmentalism: racism, eugenics, xenophobia, even death-dealing.</p><p>We get even closer to these third rails when we consider that the question of whether to reproduce is, for some people, no choice at all. Modern efforts to limit fertility, which ramped up after World War II, have targeted poor women in the Global South, and Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the U.S. using coercion and force. BIPOC reproductive justice advocates such as Loretta Ross have condemned dichotomous pro-abortion-rights versus anti-abortion politics for producing "<a href="https://www.google.com/books/edition/Radical_Reproductive_Justice/hN-4DgAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=loretta%20ross%20radical%20reproductive&pg=PT8&printsec=frontcover&bsq=anemic" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">anemic political analyses</a>" that ignore the reality of forced sterilizations in prisons and the appallingly high maternal mortality rate for Black women in the U.S. These are all forms of what medical historian and ethicist Harriet Washington calls "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8WCS1Rs8K8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">medical apartheid</a>."</p>
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By Sharon Guynup
At this time of year, in Russia's far north Laptev Sea, the sun hovers near the horizon during the day, generating little warmth, as the region heads towards months of polar night. By late September or early October, the sea's shallow waters should be a vast, frozen expanse.
Comparison of autumn sea ice formation for the first half of October 2012 (the record year for Arctic sea ice extent loss) and in 2020 (second place for sea ice extent loss). The satellite record goes back to 1979. @Icy_Samuel, data provided by NSIDC
Arctic sea ice extent on Oct. 25, 2020 was at a record low 5.613 million square kilometers for this date, surpassing the record set in 2019 of 6.174 million square kilometers. ChArctic NSIDC
The Arctic appears to be changing into an entirely new climate state due to rapid warming. The extent of sea ice in the late summer, when it reaches its minimum each year, has already entered a statistically different climate, with surface air temperatures and the number of days with rain instead of snow also beginning to transition. Simmi Sinha, ©UCAR
A polar bear prowls the Arctic shoreline. VisualHunt.com
A fire burning through northern forest in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, in July 2020. Greenpeace International
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By Peter A. Kloess
Picture Antarctica today and what comes to mind? Large ice floes bobbing in the Southern Ocean? Maybe a remote outpost populated with scientists from around the world? Or perhaps colonies of penguins puttering amid vast open tracts of snow?
Giants of the Sky<p>As their name suggests, these ancient birds had sharp, bony spikes protruding from sawlike jaws. Resembling teeth, these spikes would have helped them catch squid or fish. We also studied another remarkable feature of the pelagornithids – their imposing size.</p><p>The largest flying bird alive today is the <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/group/albatrosses/" target="_blank">wandering albatross</a>, which has a wingspan that reaches 11 ½ feet. The Antarctic pelagornithids fossils we studied have a wingspan nearly double that – about 21 feet across. If you tipped a two-story building on its side, that's about 20 feet.</p><p>Across Earth's history, very few groups of vertebrates have achieved powered flight – and only two reached truly giant sizes: birds and a group of <a href="https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/pterosaurs-flight-in-the-age-of-dinosaurs/what-is-a-pterosaur" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reptiles called pterosaurs</a>.</p>
Full-size model of a Quetzalcoatlus on display at JuraPark in Baltow, Poland. Aneta Leszkiewicz / Wikimedia<p>Pterosaurs ruled the skies during the Mesozoic Era (252 million to 66 million years ago), the same period that dinosaurs roamed the planet, and they reached hard-to-believe dimensions. <a href="https://www.wired.com/2013/11/absurd-creature-of-the-week-quetz/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Quetzalcoatlus</a> stood 16 feet tall and had a colossal 33-foot wingspan.</p>
Birds Get Their Opportunity<p>Birds originated while dinosaurs and pterosaurs were still roaming the planet. But when an <a href="https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/dinosaur-killing-asteroid-impact-chicxulub-crater-timeline-destruction-180973075/" target="_blank">asteroid struck the Yucatan Peninsula 66 million years ago</a>, dinosaurs and pterosaurs both perished. Some <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-birds-survived-asteroid-impact-wiped-out-dinosaurs" target="_blank">select birds survived</a>, though. These survivors diversified into the thousands of bird species alive today. Pelagornithids evolved in the period right after dinosaur and pterosaur extinction, when competition for food was lessened.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/spp2.1284" target="_blank">The earliest pelagornithid remains</a>, recovered from 62-million-year-old sediments in New Zealand, were about the size of modern gulls. The first giant pelagornithids, the ones in our study, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-75248-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">took flight over Antarctica about 10 million years later</a>, in a period called the Eocene Epoch (56 million to 33.9 million years ago). In addition to these specimens, fossilized remains from other pelagornithids have been found on every continent.</p><p>Pelagornithids lasted for about 60 million years before going extinct just before the Pleistocene Epoch (2.5 million to 11,700 years ago). No one knows exactly why, though, because few fossil records have been recovered from the period at the end of their reign. Some paleontologists cite <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/02724634.2011.562268" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">climate change as a possible factor</a>.</p>
Piecing it Together<p>The fossils we studied are fragments of whole bones collected by paleontologists from the University of California at Riverside in the 1980s. In 2003, the specimens were transferred to Berkeley, where they now reside in the <a href="https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of California Museum of Paleontology</a>.</p><p>There isn't enough material from Antarctica to rebuild an entire skeleton, but by comparing the fossil fragments with similar elements from more complete individuals, we were able to assess their size.</p>
In life, the pelagornithid would have had numerous 'teeth,' making it a formidable predator. Peter Kloess, CC BY-NC-SA
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