Cover Image


View/Hide Left Panel

Only 45 percent of the CO2 emitted by human activities remains in the atmosphere; the remainder is absorbed by the oceans and land surface. Current estimates, which are based on a combination of direct measurements and models that simulate ecosystem processes and biogeochemical cycles, indicate that roughly twice as much CO2 is taken up annually by ecosystems on the land surface as is released by deforestation; thus, the land surface is a net “carbon sink.” The oceans are also a net carbon sink, but only some of the CO2 absorbed by the oceans is taken up and used by marine plants; most of it combines with water to form carbonic acid, which (as described below) is harmful to many kinds of ocean life. The combined impacts of rising CO2 levels, temperature change, and other climate changes on natural ecosystems and on agriculture are described later in this chapter and in further detail in Part II of the report.

Human Activities Are Associated with a Net Warming Effect on Climate

Human activities have led to higher concentrations of a number of GHGs as well as other climate forcing agents. For example, the human-caused increase in CO2 since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution is associated with a warming effect equivalent to approximately 1.6 Watts of energy per square meter of the Earth’s surface (Figure 2.4). Although this may seem like a small amount of energy, when multiplied by the surface area of the Earth it is 50 times larger than the total power consumed by all human activities.

In addition to CO2, the concentrations of methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), ozone (O3), and over a dozen chlorofluorocarbons and related gases have increased as a result of human activities. Collectively, the total warming associated with GHGs is estimated to be 3.0 Watts per square meter, or almost double the forcing associated with CO2 alone. While CO2 and N2O levels continue to rise (due mainly to fossil fuel burning and agricultural processes, respectively), concentrations of several of the halogenated gases are now declining as a result of action taken to protect the ozone layer, and the concentration of CH4 also appears to have leveled off (see Chapter 6 for details).

Human activities have also increased the number of aerosols, or particles, in the atmosphere. While the effects of these particles are not as well measured or understood as the effects of GHGs, recent estimates indicate that they produce a net cooling effect that offsets some, but not all, of the warming associated with GHG increases (see Figure 2.4). Humans have also modified Earth’s land surface, for example by replacing forests with cropland. Averaged over the globe, it is estimated that these land use and land cover changes have increased the amount of sunlight that is reflected back to

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement