There has been endless debate about whether the extra carbon dioxide appearing in the atmosphere has been due to man-made causes through the burning of fossil fuels or is a natural cycle. This has huge implications about whether humans should act to reduce the rise in carbon dioxide levels to reduce the impact of global warming. Finally there is a way of doing this.
New Way to Distinguish CO2 from Fossil Fuels
Scientists have discovered an exiting new way of using C14 to distinguish between carbon dioxide derived from burning fossils and that derived from natural sources such as plants.
Scientists have discovered an exiting new way of using the isotope Carbon-14 (C14) to distinguish between carbon dioxide derived from burning fossils fuels and that derived from natural sources such as plants or the ocean.
New research published in the Journal of Geophysical Research focused on the relatively rare isotope Carbon-14, which is constantly re-created in small quantities in the atmosphere via cosmic ray impact. The relative proportion of C14 present in the atmosphere has remained relatively constant over time as the isotope decays away over thousands of years.
Fossil fuels that have been buried underground for many millions of years contain virtually no carbon-14, as it has long since decayed from the original plants that formed the oil and coal. So there is no C14 emitted when the fossil fuel burns.
But CO2 released from plants, respiring animals and from the burning of timber and other plant material, does contain C14.
So the researchers argue, the impact of fossil fuels on the atmosphere should show up in samples from the atmosphere and be reflected as a change in the relative amount of C14 present. The ratio of CO2 derived from fossil fuel (no C14) and natural "biogenic" CO2 (with C14 present) should be mirrored as changes in the relative amount of C14 in the atmosphere. Burning of fossil fuels should cause the C14 levels to fall. There are many air samples that have been collected previously that could be tested, and historic samples are available from ice cores collected from the Antarctic.
The more measurements the researchers can obtain from a variety of current and historic sources, the more robust the tool will become for climate change research.
The tool has the potential to be used as a way of estimating how much CO2 from fossil fuels is being produced from each country. Self-reporting of fossil fuel usage is fraught with difficulty. Samples could be collected regionally, tested and compared.
The C14 measurement could also be used to integrate the net CO2 emission rate for each county by talking into account the amount of CO2 sequestered (absorbed by plants) as well as emitted. Some of the CO2 emitted by burning fossil fuel CO2 will be absorbed from the local atmosphere and locked up in growing plants and trees. This will reduce the net impact of the emission and could be reflected in a smaller local reduction in C14 level. This application of the C14 measure at a regional scale is more contentious and requires more detailed research and testing.
The advantage of this system is that it can potentially avoid any under-reporting of CO2 emissions by various countries, if and when, a global accounting system is developed to address global warming and emissions trading schemes.
The researchers have warned that much needs to be done to confirm the assumptions of the method, and provide some much needed quality assurance using historic data.
Nevertheless, the method offers a new and exciting tool for tackling Global Warming and Climate Change that threatens the viability of the human race on Planet Earth.