Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Curbing deforestation could stop climate change - if it exists

The effect of human activities on climate change is real, according to a new study on tropical deforestation in areas like the Amazon and Indonesia.

Conducted by an international team of researchers from the U.S., U.K., Brazil, France and Australia, the study claims to have confirmed that avoiding deforestation can play a key role in reducing future greenhouse gas concentrations.

Nearly 20 percent of carbon emissions is said to be contributed by deforestation in the tropics. This equates to about 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon each year, adding up to an estimated 130 billion tonnes of carbon by the year 2100.

"[The 2100 projection] is greater than the amount of carbon that would be released by 13 years of global fossil fuel combustion," said CSIRO atmospheric scientist Pep Canadall, who is also a researcher on the Global Carbon Project and on the deforestation study.

"Maintaining forests as carbon sinks will make a significant contribution to stabilising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations," he said. "The new body of information … also demonstrates the need to avoid higher levels of global warming, which could slow the ability of forests to accumulate carbon."

"Climate changes all the time, so if the goal is to keep it constant, or 'sustainable', it is a hopeless task"
- Bjarne Andresen
According to thermodynamics expert Bjarne Andresen, however, the very concept of global warming could be a farce. A professor of physics at the esteemed Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark, Andresen's recent report in the international Journal of Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics claims that the notion of an overall global temperature is both a thermodynamical and mathematical impossibility.

Explaining 'temperature' as a comparative quantity that can only have meaning at a point or for a homogeneous system, Andresen argued that Earth consists of a huge number of components. Adding temperatures together to form a global average would have the same, meaningless effect as calculating the average phone number in a telephone directory, he said.

"The whole idea of global anything is a figment of the imagination," he said. "Effects happen locally and will be different at different spots on Earth; some places will heat up, others cool down."

"Climate changes all the time, so if the goal is to keep it constant, [or] 'sustainable', it is a hopeless task," he said, although stressing that the futility of a constant climate is his personal opinion, and not part of his scientific work.

While he is also of the opinion that humans are ethically obliged not to pollute the environment with poisonous substances like PCB and mercury, Andresen questioned the purpose of using wood, which has sometimes been touted as renewable energy source, instead of coal.

"What is the big difference between the so-called renewable energy source wood as opposed to coal?" he said. "Coal used to be wood as well, so we are actually just burning old wood. In both cases the carbon originally came from the atmosphere and we are returning it there."

Andresen urged climatologists to rethink their methods of analysing climate, as 'equally correct' methods of averaging could each yield wildly different conclusions about the state of the environment.

Emphasising that strong physical arguments are needed to decide on which averaging method to use in describing the climate, Andresen argued that currently approaches to 'global warming' could be employing more of a political, fear-mongering tactic than a scientific approach to the issue.

Atmospheric physicist Michael Box, of the University of New South Wales, defended the averaging methods currently favoured by many climatologists, saying that while 'average temperature' may be a term used loosely by policy makers, 'real' climate scientists use a vast range of inputs as best they can.

"I'm sure all atmospheric physicists know that you can't average temperatures in a strictly formal sense," he said. "However, it is a piece of data that we have going back for a century, so we have something we can compare to."

"We all know that it is temperature gradients which drive the atmosphere - i.e. meteorology," he said. "Nevertheless, an increase in global average temperature is a clear sign that something is going on!"

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