IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

1.4.4 Biogeochemistry and Radiative Forcing

The modern scientific understanding of the complex and interconnected roles of greenhouse gases and aerosols in climate change has undergone rapid evolution over the last two decades. While the concepts were recognised and outlined in the 1970s (see Sections 1.3.1 and 1.4.1), the publication of generally accepted quantitative results coincides with, and was driven in part by, the questions asked by the IPCC beginning in 1988. Thus, it is instructive to view the evolution of this topic as it has been treated in the successive IPCC reports.

The WGI FAR codified the key physical and biogeochemical processes in the Earth system that relate a changing climate to atmospheric composition, chemistry, the carbon cycle and natural ecosystems. The science of the time, as summarised in the FAR, made a clear case for anthropogenic interference with the climate system. In terms of greenhouse agents, the main conclusions from the WGI FAR Policymakers Summary are still valid today: (1) ‘emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases: CO2, CH4, CFCs, N2O’; (2) ‘some gases are potentially more effective (at greenhouse warming)’; (3) feedbacks between the carbon cycle, ecosystems and atmospheric greenhouse gases in a warmer world will affect CO2 abundances; and (4) GWPs provide a metric for comparing the climatic impact of different greenhouse gases, one that integrates both the radiative influence and biogeochemical cycles. The climatic importance of tropospheric ozone, sulphate aerosols and atmospheric chemical feedbacks were proposed by scientists at the time and noted in the assessment. For example, early global chemical modelling results argued that global tropospheric ozone, a greenhouse gas, was controlled by emissions of the highly reactive gases nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO) and non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHC, also known as volatile organic compounds, VOC). In terms of sulphate aerosols, both the direct radiative effects and the indirect effects on clouds were acknowledged, but the importance of carbonaceous aerosols from fossil fuel and biomass combustion was not recognised (Chapters 2, 7 and 10).

The concept of radiative forcing (RF) as the radiative imbalance (W m–2) in the climate system at the top of the atmosphere caused by the addition of a greenhouse gas (or other change) was established at the time and summarised in Chapter 2 of the WGI FAR. Agents of RF included the direct greenhouse gases, solar radiation, aerosols and the Earth’s surface albedo. What was new and only briefly mentioned was that ‘many gases produce indirect effects on the global radiative forcing’. The innovative global modelling work of Derwent (1990) showed that emissions of the reactive but non-greenhouse gases – NOx, CO and NMHCs – altered atmospheric chemistry and thus changed the abundance of other greenhouse gases. Indirect GWPs for NOx, CO and VOCs were proposed. The projected chemical feedbacks were limited to short-lived increases in tropospheric ozone. By 1990, it was clear that the RF from tropospheric ozone had increased over the 20th century and stratospheric ozone had decreased since 1980 (e.g., Lacis et al., 1990), but the associated RFs were not evaluated in the assessments. Neither was the effect of anthropogenic sulphate aerosols, except to note in the FAR that ‘it is conceivable that this radiative forcing has been of a comparable magnitude, but of opposite sign, to the greenhouse forcing earlier in the century’. Reflecting in general the community’s concerns about this relatively new measure of climate forcing, RF bar charts appear only in the underlying FAR chapters, but not in the FAR Summary. Only the long-lived greenhouse gases are shown, although sulphate aerosols direct effect in the future is noted with a question mark (i.e., dependent on future emissions) (Chapters 2, 7 and 10).

The cases for more complex chemical and aerosol effects were becoming clear, but the scientific community was unable at the time to reach general agreement on the existence, scale and magnitude of these indirect effects. Nevertheless, these early discoveries drove the research agendas in the early 1990s. The widespread development and application of global chemistry-transport models had just begun with international workshops (Pyle et al., 1996; Jacob et al., 1997; Rasch, 2000). In the Supplementary Report (IPCC, 1992) to the FAR, the indirect chemical effects of CO, NOx and VOC were reaffirmed, and the feedback effect of CH4 on the tropospheric hydroxyl radical (OH) was noted, but the indirect RF values from the FAR were retracted and denoted in a table with ‘+’, ‘0’ or ‘–’. Aerosol-climate interactions still focused on sulphates, and the assessment of their direct RF for the NH (i.e., a cooling) was now somewhat quantitative as compared to the FAR. Stratospheric ozone depletion was noted as causing a significant and negative RF, but not quantified. Ecosystems research at this time was identifying the responses to climate change and CO2 increases, as well as altered CH4 and N2O fluxes from natural systems; however, in terms of a community assessment it remained qualitative.

By 1994, with work on SAR progressing, the Special Report on Radiative Forcing (IPCC, 1995) reported significant breakthroughs in a set of chapters limited to assessment of the carbon cycle, atmospheric chemistry, aerosols and RF. The carbon budget for the 1980s was analysed not only from bottom-up emissions estimates, but also from a top-down approach including carbon isotopes. A first carbon cycle assessment was performed through an international model and analysis workshop examining terrestrial and oceanic uptake to better quantify the relationship between CO2 emissions and the resulting increase in atmospheric abundance. Similarly, expanded analyses of the global budgets of trace gases and aerosols from both natural and anthropogenic sources highlighted the rapid expansion of biogeochemical research. The first RF bar chart appears, comparing all the major components of RF change from the pre-industrial period to the present. Anthropogenic soot aerosol, with a positive RF, was not in the 1995 Special Report but was added to the SAR. In terms of atmospheric chemistry, the first open-invitation modelling study for the IPCC recruited 21 atmospheric chemistry models to participate in a controlled study of photochemistry and chemical feedbacks. These studies (e.g., Olson et al., 1997) demonstrated a robust consensus about some indirect effects, such as the CH4 impact on atmospheric chemistry, but great uncertainty about others, such as the prediction of tropospheric ozone changes. The model studies plus the theory of chemical feedbacks in the CH4-CO-OH system (Prather, 1994) firmly established that the atmospheric lifetime of a perturbation (and hence climate impact and GWP) of CH4 emissions was about 50% greater than reported in the FAR. There was still no consensus on quantifying the past or future changes in tropospheric ozone or OH (the primary sink for CH4) (Chapters 2, 7 and 10).

In the early 1990s, research on aerosols as climate forcing agents expanded. Based on new research, the range of climate-relevant aerosols was extended for the first time beyond sulphates to include nitrates, organics, soot, mineral dust and sea salt. Quantitative estimates of sulphate aerosol indirect effects on cloud properties and hence RF were sufficiently well established to be included in assessments, and carbonaceous aerosols from biomass burning were recognised as being comparable in importance to sulphate (Penner et al., 1992). Ranges are given in the special report (IPCC, 1995) for direct sulphate RF (–0.25 to –0.9 W m–2) and biomass-burning aerosols (–0.05 to –0.6 W m–2). The aerosol indirect RF was estimated to be about equal to the direct RF, but with larger uncertainty. The injection of stratospheric aerosols from the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo was noted as the first modern test of a known radiative forcing, and indeed one climate model accurately predicted the temperature response (Hansen et al., 1992). In the one-year interval between the special report and the SAR, the scientific understanding of aerosols grew. The direct anthropogenic aerosol forcing (from sulphate, fossil-fuel soot and biomass-burning aerosols) was reduced to –0.5 W m–2. The RF bar chart was now broken into aerosol components (sulphate, fossil-fuel soot and biomass burning aerosols) with a separate range for indirect effects (Chapters 2 and 7; Sections 8.2 and 9.2).

Throughout the 1990s, there were concerted research programs in the USA and EU to evaluate the global environmental impacts of aviation. Several national assessments culminated in the IPCC Special Report on Aviation and the Global Atmosphere (IPCC, 1999), which assessed the impacts on climate and global air quality. An open invitation for atmospheric model participation resulted in community participation and a consensus on many of the environmental impacts of aviation (e.g., the increase in tropospheric ozone and decrease in CH4 due to NOx emissions were quantified). The direct RF of sulphate and of soot aerosols was likewise quantified along with that of contrails, but the impact on cirrus clouds that are sometimes generated downwind of contrails was not. The assessment re-affirmed that RF was a first-order metric for the global mean surface temperature response, but noted that it was inadequate for regional climate change, especially in view of the largely regional forcing from aerosols and tropospheric ozone (Sections 2.6, 2.8 and 10.2).

By the end of the 1990s, research on atmospheric composition and climate forcing had made many important advances. The TAR was able to provide a more quantitative evaluation in some areas. For example, a large, open-invitation modelling workshop was held for both aerosols (11 global models) and tropospheric ozone-OH chemistry (14 global models). This workshop brought together as collaborating authors most of the international scientific community involved in developing and testing global models of atmospheric composition. In terms of atmospheric chemistry, a strong consensus was reached for the first time that science could predict the changes in tropospheric ozone in response to scenarios for CH4 and the indirect greenhouse gases (CO, NOx, VOC) and that a quantitative GWP for CO could be reported. Further, combining these models with observational analysis, an estimate of the change in tropospheric ozone since the pre-industrial era – with uncertainties – was reported. The aerosol workshop made similar advances in evaluating the impact of different aerosol types. There were many different representations of uncertainty (e.g., a range in models versus an expert judgment) in the TAR, and the consensus RF bar chart did not generate a total RF or uncertainties for use in the subsequent IPCC Synthesis Report (IPCC, 2001b) (Chapters 2 and 7; Section 9.2).