What sparked the rapid increase of carbon dioxide?

Today, scientists attribute the cause of the current climate crisis to the rapid increase in the use of fossil fuels that started around the time of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States of America between the 18th and 19th century. This climate trend is particularly significant as it is the first major change in the climate which is extremely likely to be the result of human activity, unlike the Ice Age and the Medieval Warming Period, and it is proceeding at an unprecedented rate compared to other decades and millennia. It was found that prior to the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide levels varied between 180 and 280 parts per million across the glacial and interglacial cycles. However today, this has more than doubled to over 407 parts per million.

Certain gases such as nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide block the heat from escaping the atmosphere, causing the ‘greenhouse effect’. This can be due to human activity and often occurs after the release of large volumes of gases during volcanic eruptions. Some gases remain in the atmosphere due to being unresponsive to physical and chemical changes. These can be described as ‘forcing’ climate change as they remain in the atmosphere and can accumulate to form a ‘blanket’ of gases that cause the temperature of the planet to gradually increase. Other gases, such as water vapour, which do react physically and chemically with other molecules with the correct conditions are ‘feedbacks’. Water vapour is the most abundant of the greenhouse gases, but it is one of the most important ‘feedback’ mechanisms because the water vapour’s ability to condense to form water droplets and fall back to earth through precipitation.  Unlike ‘feedbacks’, there is a greater variety of molecules that force climate change. These include carbon dioxide and methane, gases produced from natural sources and human activity, nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas produced by the soil cultivation process, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), synthetic compounds that originated from industrial processes.

To tackle climate change, even as we aim to turn net global emissions down to near zero in the near future, more needs to be invested into methods to remove some of the greenhouse gases, especially the synthetic ones that are already in the atmosphere. Much research into the development of carbon capture and storage methods that could potentially lead to large reductions in the volume of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere has been done by engineers and scientists. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is one of the newest ways of reducing carbon emissions, which could be the key to tackling the current global warming.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emphasised that, if we are to complete the objectives of the Paris Agreement and curb future temperature increases to 1.5 degrees, we must do more than increasing efforts to reduce emissions but also need to develop the technologies to remove existing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere – CCS is one of those technologies and can play an important role in resolving our climate crisis. CCS is a three-step process, involving: capturing the carbon dioxide produced by power generation or industrial activity; transporting it through ships or pipelines; and then storing it kilometres underground. The aim of CCS is to permanently store carbon dioxide in the ground by injecting it into the rocks blow the seabed. However, more also must be done to increase the amount of effort to support renewable energy companies that will, in the future be the main producers of energy. The Hothouse Earth study called “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene”, in which a team of interdisciplinary Earth systems scientists warned that the problem of climate change may be even worse than we thought, cautions that with a heating of 3 or 4°C, Earth’s “self-reinforcing feedbacks” — wildfires, methane release, and so forth — can drive the temperature even higher, toward runaway heating, a “nonlinear process” that no amount of human intervention can control.

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