News & AnalysisClimate Change

Using Radiocarbon to Go Beyond Good Faith in Measuring CO2 Emissions

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Science  27 Jul 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6093, pp. 400-401
DOI: 10.1126/science.337.6093.400

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Researchers have found a better way to estimate CO2 emissions: by measuring the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere that contains the radioactive isotope carbon-14 (14CO2). Because the half-life of 14C is only 5730 years, the carbon locked up in fossil fuels has none. So as the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from fossil fuels rises, the relative amount of 14CO2 is measurably depleted. Other ways to produce carbon emissions numbers are based on estimates of how much CO2 is generated by certain activities, estimates that are subject to all kinds of errors. What's needed, researchers say, are "top-down" determinations based on actual scientific measurements of what's in the atmosphere.