Posted by: Barry Bickmore | July 5, 2011

Chinese Coal-Fired Plants Cool the Planet… Temporarily

A new study has come out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that claims to explain why the global climate hasn’t been warming over the last decade as fast as it had been.  The culprit may be a gazillion new Chinese coal-fired power plants, many of which aren’t equipped with “scrubbers” that take sulfur aerosols out of the emissions.  So while these new plants have been spewing out lots of CO2, which tends to warm the planet, they have also been emitting lots of the aerosols, which tend to reflect sunlight back into space, cooling the planet.  Hallelujah, right?  Well, the problem is that sulfur aerosols only help in the short-term, whereas lots of the CO2 we emit will be warming the planet for hundreds, or even thousands of years to come.

Read the full story in The Independent.


  1. Of course all the “skeptics” took from this study is “hah! They admitted the planet didn’t warm from 1998 to 2008!”. The study itself is very interesting, though obviously geared towards those who would read it with a scientific eye rather than a political/ideological one.


    Dang, where did that heat go? It’s got to be around here somewhere…

  3. If true this is embarassing for climate science. Don’t they keep track of emissions and use them as input in their models? Why did it take so long to do something as obvious as this? I know I’ve considered the possibility for at least five years but sort of dismissed it because I assumed something as obvious as that must have been checked.

    • Hi Thomas,

      This would be a good thing about which to e-mail the corresponding author of the paper. Some possible reasons for the delay that I can think of include:

      1. It takes a number of years to get a good trend in global temperature data. Maybe they were waiting for some higher level of statistical significance.

      2. The data in question would have to be extracted from quite a number of more or less cooperative governments. Maybe that takes some time.

  4. Actually, I’m unconvinced that the study in question is as conclusive as it claims to be. Qualitatively, it matches expectations – temperature change over a 10 year period will be influenced by a number of factors, from changes in sulfate emissions to ENSO variability to changes in solar cycles to changes in strat water vapor – and these can add to or subtract from the trend expected due to elevated concentrations of GHGs. But quantitatively, it feels a little bit like a slightly more sophisticated version of one of Spencer’s climate sensitivity analyses… this kind of statistical model just doesn’t convince me because I feel like it is oversimplified.

    (also, the news has blown up the sulfur part of the study, when that was only one of several factors involved)

    One answer to Thomas’ question is that for the real models, it takes a long time to set up and run a GCM, and questions regarding a 10 year period are not the priority of the modelers (it isn’t what the GCM’s are designed for, anyway). But the AR5 models will use somewhat updated information about historical emissions and solar variability, so it will be interesting to see what comes out in 2013/2014 (but the GCMs won’t match observed ENSO variability in any case).

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