Photo: Arthur Böttcher

Atmospheric observations in China show rise in emissions of a potent greenhouse gas

Global warming potential of sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) is more than 24,000 times that of carbon dioxide.

Mark Dwortzan | MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change • mit
March 28, 2024 5 minSource

To achieve the aspirational goal of the Paris Agreement on climate change — limiting the increase in global average surface temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — will require its 196 signatories to dramatically reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Those greenhouse gases differ widely in their global warming potential (GWP), or ability to absorb radiative energy and thereby warm the Earth’s surface. For example, measured over a 100-year period, the GWP of methane is about 28 times that of carbon dioxide (CO 2 ), and the GWP of sulfur hexafluoride (SF 6 ) is 24,300 times that of CO 2 , according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report .

Used primarily in high-voltage electrical switchgear in electric power grids, SF 6 is one of the most potent greenhouse gases on Earth. In the 21st century, atmospheric concentrations of SF 6 have risen sharply along with global electric power demand, threatening the world’s efforts to stabilize the climate. This heightened demand for electric power is particularly pronounced in China, which has dominated the expansion of the global power industry in the past decade. Quantifying China’s contribution to global SF 6 emissions — and pinpointing its sources in the country — could lead that nation to implement new measures to reduce them, and thereby reduce, if not eliminate, an impediment to the Paris Agreement’s aspirational goal.

To that end, a new study by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change , Fudan University, Peking University, University of Bristol , and Meteorological Observation Center of China Meteorological Administration determined total SF 6 emissions in China over 2011-21 from atmospheric observations collected from nine stations within a Chinese network, including one station from the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment ( AGAGE ) network. For comparison, global total emissions were determined from five globally distributed, relatively unpolluted “background” AGAGE stations, involving additional researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and CSIRO , Australia's National Science Agency.

The researchers found that SF 6 emissions in China almost doubled from 2.6 gigagrams (Gg) per year in 2011, when they accounted for 34 percent of global SF 6 emissions, to 5.1 Gg per year in 2021, when they accounted for 57 percent of global total SF 6 emissions. This increase from China over the 10-year period — some of it emerging from the country’s less-populated western regions — was larger than the global total SF 6 emissions rise, highlighting the importance of lowering SF 6 emissions from China in the future.

The open-access study, which appears in the journal Nature Communications , explores prospects for future SF 6 emissions reduction in China.

“Adopting maintenance practices that minimize SF 6 leakage rates or using SF 6 -free equipment or SF 6 substitutes in the electric power grid will benefit greenhouse-gas mitigation in China,” says Minde An , a postdoc at the MIT Center for Global Change Science (CGCS) and the study’s lead author. “We see our findings as a first step in quantifying the problem and identifying how it can be addressed.”

Emissions of SF 6 are expected to last more than 1,000 years in the atmosphere, raising the stakes for policymakers in China and around the world.

“Any increase in SF 6 emissions this century will effectively alter our planet’s radiative budget — the balance between incoming energy from the sun and outgoing energy from the Earth — far beyond the multi-decadal time frame of current climate policies,” says MIT Joint Program and CGCS Director Ronald Prinn , a coauthor of the study. “So it’s imperative that China and all other nations take immediate action to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, their SF 6 emissions.”

The study was supported by the National Key Research and Development Program of China and Shanghai B&R Joint Laboratory Project, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and other funding agencies.

Reprinted with permission of MIT News

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