The Sink Is Half Full: Good News About Cutting Carbon

If we cut emissions now, the carbon sink can soak it up faster than we thought.

the sink is half full
The sink is half full.

Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty Images

These are trying times, but here on Treehugger, we always look on the bright side of life. The glass is half full or, in this case, the sink. And it appears that the carbon sinks—the natural phenomena where the oceans, trees, and other natural absorbers of atmospheric carbon—could do a quick job of cooling the climate if we stop adding carbon dioxide (CO2).

At a seminar hosted by Covering Climate Now (CCNow), an organization supporting climate journalism, CCNow co-founder and executive director Mark Hertsgaard summarized the situation. Hertsgaard said, according to the transcript:

"The gist is that contrary to long-held assumptions, large amounts of temperature rise are not necessarily locked into the Earth’s climate system. As soon as emissions are cut to zero, temperature rise can stop within as little as three years. Three years, not the 30 to 40 years that I for one have been reporting for a long time and that most of us as journalists thought was the scientific consensus. So the upshot of this revised science is that humanity can still limit temperature rise to the 1.5 degree Celsius target, but only if we take strong action starting now."
Carbon cycle
Global Carbon Cycle.

Nasa/Globe Program / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

The carbon cycle is well known, and so was the fact that humans were cranking out the CO2 faster than the trees and the ocean could absorb them. But we have been saying for years that the temperature will keep rising, even if we stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere right now. We have also been talking about carbon budgets being directly related to the degrees of warming. But climate scientist Michael Mann suggests that this may have been simplistic.

Mann explains we have been misunderstanding the science around carbon budgets, where we have suggested that the surface temperature we end up with is a function of cumulative carbon emissions. But it is not so simple, due to "the fact that carbon dioxide levels actually start coming down once you stop emitting carbon into the atmosphere. And that’s because natural sinks, particularly the ocean, continue to take carbon out of the atmosphere." He uses the kitchen sink analogy:

"The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is like the water level in your sink. If you have the faucet on and the drain closed, that water level is rising and it’ll continue to rise. As long as that situation is there, the CO2 will continue to rise. When you turn off the faucet, it’ll stop rising. That’s a fixed carbon dioxide concentration. But actually, we’ve got the drain open. The drains are those natural sinks. So the faucet is off and the drain is opening. That means the water level’s going to come down. That’s really the crux of the carbon cycle dynamics, if you will, the technical term that we use for that. So we were for too long communicating the analogy of the faucet being turned off and the water level stops rising, but we weren’t talking about the drain being open."

Hertsgaard also looked on the bright side of life but notes this is not a Get Out of Jail Free card. He noted: "There’s a lot of work to do. But if we lower the emissions quickly, we can get there. We can avoid the worst."

This being a discussion on a climate journalism website, there was a lot of talk about how we can use this information to change the way we talk about climate change. As Scientific American editor-in-chief Laura Helmuth noted, "The challenge of our careers is to not be unremittingly grim, to be honest and completely clear about what’s happening, but not make it seem hopeless or reveal in which ways it’s not hopeless."

Hertsgaard, Mann, and International Centre for Climate Change and Development Director Saleemul Huq turned all of this into an article for The Washington Post where they reiterate this information is not new but was "inadvertently buried" in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. But now that it has been dug up, it should be put to good use.

"Knowing that 30 more years of rising temperatures are not necessarily locked in can be a game-changer for how people, governments and businesses respond to the climate crisis. Understanding that we can still save our civilization if we take strong, fast action can banish the despair that paralyzes people and instead motivate them to get involved. Lifestyle changes can help, but that must also include political engagement."

This is not news, and it is not a game-changer—it's really spin, a positive presentation of the data because as Hertsgaard noted in the webinar: "The social science research shows that people are very tired. Average people when they look at the news, it’s all bad news. If it bleeds, it leads. I’m tired of that. So they tune us out." I certainly see that Treehugger readers are tired.

So I am not going to complain about a little positive spin that reinforces our Treehugger position: The climate crisis is fixable. We remain upbeat and positive, and we will take all the good news we can get.

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