COP 24 in Katowice: Closing Thoughts -- GHG Lifetimes and CO2 Reductions Since 1990

COP 24—A&WMA member Mike DeBusschere files his final report from COP 24 and offers some key reflections from everything he saw and heard throughout the first week of sessions. This week, President-Elect, Michele Gehring, arrives in Poland to take in the second week of activities.
by Mike Debusschere

Closing Thoughts from COP 24

I have completed my role as A&WMA Observer after an interesting first week attending COP 24. So, I thought about this past week and here are some themes from the conference:
  1. We are not focusing on cumulative GHG buildup in the atmosphere, just what we're emitting now compared to 1990. Well, I think this could be a very valid point and should be of concern. The graph below indicates that the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted today could be up there 200 years from now. Similarly, methane 15 years and nitrous oxides 115 years. I can't vouch for the accuracy of the chart, but it appears three main greenhouse gases (GHGs) go up but don't just disappear by the year 2020.
  2. We should get busy reducing GHGs instead of just organizing and talking about doing something. The map and chart below seem to say some countries have already done quite a bit of reducing, even some well-developed countries like Germany, UK, and France. In the zero-carbon session I attended, France even has plans to go to net zero carbon by 2050, with Germany not far behind. So, I am sure there are some countries not doing anything, but this is not generally the case.
  3. We have to do more to help undeveloped countries build capacity ASAP so they can devise reduction programs and implement them to meet their targets. OK, so if I understand it the 45 or so countries in this classification emit about 1% of GHGs, but the UNFCCC programs set aside US$100 billion a year for them to do just that. Well boo-hoo! Build into grants money for adding necessary staff for capacity building, grant applications and to hire consultants or legitimate organizations to design country-wide reduction programs and get on with it. Give each country a million bucks to prime the pump. As a consultant myself, I wouldn't have any problems doing this kind of work helping them spend US$100,000,000,000 a year!
  4. Surprisingly, I didn't hear much about the U.S. pulling out, I thought I would. It appears the U.S. head of state just can't say the U.S. is quitting, it takes three years to go through the cycle. Plus it appears that GHG reduction programs in the U.S. have already taken root and have produced handsome reductions since 1990, and will continue to do so because industry and local governments are sticking to and rigorously pursuing commitments made. Not only that, it appeared to me there was a lot of U.S. involvement in the sessions and organizations represented at COP 24, if not more than from any other country.
What is atmospheric lifetime?
The lifetime of a GHG refers to the approximate amount of time it would take for the anthropogenic increment to an atmospheric pollutant concentration to return to its natural level as a result of either being converted to another chemical compound or being taken out of the atmosphere via a sink. This time depends on the pollutant's sources and sinks as well as its reactivity. The lifetime of a pollutant is often considered in conjunction with the mixing of pollutants in the atmosphere; a long lifetime will allow the pollutant to mix throughout the atmosphere. Average lifetimes can vary from about a week (sulfate aerosols) to more than a century (carbon dioxide).

About the Author. Mike DeBusschere, P.E., was President of A&WMA from June 2000 through December 2001. Before being elected President, he served as Section Council Chair and in several Board and leadership positions. He is a licensed chemical engineer and is President of Kentuckiana Engineering Company, an environmental consulting firm in Louisville, Kentucky, since 1996. Before entering private practice, he was Acting Air Branch Chief of Region IV EPA, and led EHS regional programs at Camp Dresser & McKee, ERM and TRC. DeBusschere is an A&WMA Fellow.