The adjustment of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to reductions in emissions
depends on the chemical and physical processes that remove each gas from the atmosphere.
Concentrations of some greenhouse gases decrease almost immediately in response to emission
reduction, while others can actually continue to increase for centuries even with reduced emissions.
The concentration of a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere depends on the competition between
the rates of emission of the gas into the atmosphere and the rates of processes that remove
it from the atmosphere. For example, carbon dioxide (CO2) is
exchanged between the atmosphere, the ocean and the land through processes such as atmosphere-ocean
gas transfer and chemical (e.g., weathering) and biological (e.g., photosynthesis) processes.
While more than half of the CO2 emitted is currently removed from
the atmosphere within a century, some fraction (about 20%) of emitted
CO2 remains in the atmosphere for many millennia. Because of slow
removal processes, atmospheric CO2 will continue to increase in the
long term even if its emission is substantially reduced from present levels. Methane
(CH4) is removed by chemical processes in the atmosphere, while
nitrous oxide (N2O) and some halocarbons are destroyed in the upper
atmosphere by solar radiation. These processes each operate at different time scales ranging from
years to millennia. A measure for this is the lifetime of a gas in the atmosphere, defined as the
time it takes for a perturbation to be reduced to 37% of its initial amount. While for
CH4, N2O, and other trace gases such
as hydrochlorofluorocarbon-22 (HCFC-22), a refrigerant fluid, such lifetimes can be reasonably
determined (for CH4 it is about 12 yr, for
N2O about 110 yr and for HCFC-22 about 12 yr), a lifetime for
CO2 cannot be defined.
The change in concentration of any trace gas depends in part on how its emissions evolve over
time. If emissions increase with time, the atmospheric concentration will also increase with
time, regardless of the atmospheric lifetime of the gas. However, if actions are taken to reduce
the emissions, the fate of the trace gas concentration will depend on the relative changes not
only of emissions but also of its removal processes. Here we show how the lifetimes and removal
processes of different gases dictate the evolution of concentrations when emissions are reduced.
As examples, FAQ 10.3, Figure 1 shows test cases illustrating how the future concentration of
three trace gases would respond to illustrative changes in emissions (represented here as a
response to an imposed pulse change in emission). We consider CO2,
which has no specific lifetime, as well as a trace gas with a well-defined long lifetime on the
order of a century (e.g., N2O), and a trace gas with a well-defined
short lifetime on the order of decade (such as CH4, HCFC-22 or other
halocarbons). For each gas, five illustrative cases of future emissions are presented: stabilisation
of emissions at present-day levels, and immediate emission reduction by 10%, 30%, 50% and 100%.
The behaviour of CO2 (Figure 1a) is completely different from the
trace gases with well-defined lifetimes. Stabilisation of CO2 emissions at current levels would result in a continuous increase of atmospheric
CO2 over the 21st century and beyond, whereas for a gas with a
lifetime on the order of a century (Figure 1b) or a decade (Figure 1c), stabilisation of emissions
at current levels would lead to a stabilisation of its concentration at a level higher than today
within a couple of centuries, or decades, respectively. In fact, only in the case of essentially
FAQ 10.3, Figure 1. (a) Simulated changes in atmospheric CO2 concentration relative
to the present-day for emissions stabilised at the current level (black), or at 10% (red), 30%
(green), 50% (dark blue) and 100% (light blue) lower than the current level; (b) as in (a) for
a trace gas with a lifetime of 120 years, driven by natural and anthropogenic fluxes; and (c)
as in (a) for a trace gas with a lifetime of 12 years, driven by only anthropogenic fluxes.
complete elimination of emissions can the atmospheric concentration of
CO2 ultimately be
stabilised at a constant level. All other cases of moderate CO2 emission reductions show increasing concentrations because of the characteristic exchange processes
associated with the cycling of carbon in the climate system.
More specifically, the rate of emission of CO2 currently greatly
exceeds its rate of removal, and the slow and incomplete removal implies that small to moderate
reductions in its emissions would not result in stabilisation of CO2 concentrations, but rather would only reduce the rate of its growth in coming decades. A 10%
reduction in CO2 emissions would be expected to reduce the growth
rate by 10%, while a 30% reduction in emissions would similarly reduce the growth rate of atmospheric
CO2 concentrations by 30%. A 50% reduction would stabilise atmospheric
CO2, but only for less than a decade. After that, atmospheric
CO2 would be expected to rise again as the land and ocean sinks
decline owing to well-known chemical and biological adjustments. Complete elimination of
CO2 emissions is estimated to lead to a slow decrease in atmospheric
CO2 of about 40 ppm over the 21st century.
The situation is completely different for the trace gases with a well-defined lifetime. For
the illustrative trace gas with a lifetime of the order of a century (e.g.,
N2O), emission reduction of more than 50% is required to
stabilise the concentrations close to present-day values (Figure 1b). Constant emission
leads to a stabilisation of the concentration within a few centuries.
In the case of the illustrative gas with the short lifetime, the present-day loss is around
70% of the emissions. A reduction in emissions of less than 30% would still produce a short-term
increase in concentration in this case, but, in contrast to CO2,
would lead to stabilisation of its concentration within a couple of decades (Figure 1c). The
decrease in the level at which the concentration of such a gas would stabilise is directly
proportional to the emission reduction. Thus, in this illustrative example, a reduction in
emissions of this trace gas larger than 30% would be required to stabilise concentrations at
levels significantly below those at present. A complete cut-off of the emissions would lead to
a return to pre-industrial concentrations within less than a century for a trace gas with a
lifetime of the order of a decade.