Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

Number fiddling on the road to hell and high water

It’s almost hard to know where to begin with the new on the IEA (International Energy Agency) site, Global carbon-dioxide emissions increase by 1.0 Gt in 2011 to record high. It’s one of the biggest mashups of right and wrong points I’ve seen in a small space in a very long time (emphasis added):

Global carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil-fuel combustion reached a record high of 31.6 gigatonnes (Gt) in 2011, according to preliminary estimates from the International Energy Agency (IEA). This represents an increase of 1.0 Gt on 2010, or 3.2%. Coal accounted for 45% of total energy-related CO2 emissions in 2011, followed by oil (35%) and natural gas (20%).

The 450 Scenario of the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2011, which sets out an energy pathway consistent with a 50% chance of limiting the increase in the average global temperature to 2°C, requires CO2 emissions to peak at 32.6 Gt no later than 2017, i.e. just 1.0 Gt above 2011 levels. The 450 Scenario sees a decoupling of CO2 emissions from global GDP, but much still needs to be done to reach that goal as the rate of growth in CO2 emissions in 2011 exceeded that of global GDP. “The new data provide further evidence that the door to a 2°C trajectory is about to close,” said IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol.

In 2011, a 6.1% increase in CO2 emissions in countries outside the OECD was only partly offset by a 0.6% reduction in emissions inside the OECD. China made the largest contribution to the global increase, with its emissions rising by 720 million tonnes (Mt), or 9.3%, primarily due to higher coal consumption. “What China has done over such a short period of time to improve energy efficiency and deploy clean energy is already paying major dividends to the global environment”, said Dr. Birol. China’s carbon intensity — the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of GDP — fell by 15% between 2005 and 2011. Had these gains not been made, China’s CO2 emissions in 2011 would have been higher by 1.5 Gt.

India’s emissions rose by 140 Mt, or 8.7%, moving it ahead of Russia to become the fourth largest emitter behind China, the United States, and the European Union. Despite these increases, per-capita CO2 emissions in China and India still remain just 63% and 15% of the OECD average respectively.

CO2 emissions in the United States in 2011 fell by 92 Mt, or 1.7%, primarily due to ongoing switching from coal to natural gas in power generation and an exceptionally mild winter, which reduced the demand for space heating. US emissions have now fallen by 430 Mt (7.7%) since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions. This development has arisen from lower oil use in the transport sector (linked to efficiency improvements, higher oil prices and the economic downturn which has cut vehicle miles travelled) and a substantial shift from coal to gas in the power sector. CO2 emissions in the EU in 2011 were lower by 69 Mt, or 1.9%, as sluggish economic growth cut industrial production and a relatively warm winter reduced heating needs. By contrast, Japan’s emissions increased by 28 Mt, or 2.4%, as a result of a substantial increase in the use of fossil fuels in power generation post-Fukushima.

Global emissions up: Very, very bad.

China’s and India’s emissions up a lot: Even worse.

Yet another recitation of the “but China’s emissions intensity is falling!” mantra: A dangerous distraction and utterly irrelevant to the only thing that matters: What the environment sees. And that’s the total flows of greenhouse gases into and out of the air and oceans. Nuances like who emits each molecule of CO2 or why or how much wasn’t emitted have zero impact; the environment responds to actual flows. Everything else is posturing.

US emissions down: Good, but no one should be fooled into thinking this is a sign that Carbon Victory Day (“VC Day”?) is right around the corner. For one thing, when the US converts electricity generating capacity from coal to natural gas it’s a one-time savings for that plant, which is then still emitting far too much CO2. And if it’s a new plant, then we’re locked into that level of emissions for decades or we have to prematurely retire and replace that plant.

Similarly, don’t go wild over the reduction in US transportation emissions attributable to a reduction in VMT (vehicle miles traveled); from 2010 to 2011 they dropped only about 1.2%. And so far this year (to the end of March), VMT are up over 2011 by 1.4%, and for the prior rolling 12 months VMT are still down, but by less than 1%. (See the March 2012 report here, the latest one available as I wrote this.)

The door to 2C is closing: I honestly don’t know what to say about this one. Of course we haven’t crossed that threshold yet, but it’s just as obvious that we’re moving in the wrong direction and 2C is sounding more like a pipe dream (or a very bad joke). And notice that the ridiculous condition on 2C — “by the year 2100″ — almost never appears any more.

We need to peak at X tons by year Y: I wish this bizarre meme would die a quick and certain death. We know that this is the wrong way to measure our global carbon emissions performance; CO2 has such a long atmospheric lifetime that the exact shape of the plot of our emissions doesn’t matter. The important detail is the area under the curve, i.e. our cumulative emissions. If global CO2 emissions peaked last year at the level that the IEA reported above, 31.6 billion tons, and then dropped to, say, “only” 28 billion tons, and stayed there for 50 years, we’d be in a world of hurt even though we peaked a billion tons below the “limit” and six full years earlier. Conversely, if emissions spiked to 35 or 40 billion tons in 2017 and then dropped much quicker than anyone inside or out of the IEA assumes is “reasonable”, we could find ourselves in much better shape than anyone currently predicts.

In summary: The key numbers still aren’t moving in the right direction, despite the IEA’s Herculean efforts to find a pony in this Mt. Everest of manure.

6 comments to Number fiddling on the road to hell and high water

  • Peter

    Lou, do you really think that in the 2020s we will see some huge reduction in C02? As you say above at the close of your report on emissions.China hopes to peak its emissions by 2035- but at what level? Probably a great deal higher then today. As for the U.S – we no longer have a Government of three parts (executive. Judicial, legislative) we have a largesse of Coal and Oil Plutocrats who are now our defacto Government. If in the next 10-15 years- if we see a further destabilizing of the climate on a scale that frightens the public into demanding action- we may see a start of reducing emissions- but will it be enough to stop us from exceeding 2 degrees? The possibility of avoiding 3 degrees now is becoming more remote.

    I hate to be pessimistic. But am I? Limiting warming to 3-3.5 degrees these days is probably mainstream and optimistic.

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    Lou – well done for this critique of the IEA assessment. It is absurd for that organization to fail over these very basic points.

    Re the 2.0C threshold, its unachievability (by emissions cuts alone) is affirmed by the lack of any cogent refutation of Hansen’s paper on the loss of the cooling ‘Sulphate Parasol’ as those cuts proceed. He reported his team’s findings that the parasol’s loss will raise warming by between 80% and 140% (IIRC).

    Given that we have 0.7C of warming off the 55ppm anthro-CO2 up to 1975 (335ppm timelagged), plus say another 0.8C by 2050 off the ~60ppm anthro-CO2 added to date (395ppm), gives ~1.5C.
    Add to that say at least another 40ppm during a radically fast termination of emissions causing say another 0.5C, gives around 2.0C.
    The mean of Hansen’s finding is a 110% increase of 2.0C of warming by ending our sulphate emissions – which thus gives an outcome of 4.2C later this century.

    And that is what we’re committed to even with very rapid global emissions termination.

    Yet this doesn’t include two significant drivers – First, the ongoing decline of the natural carbon sinks as the oceans warm and acidify, that have taken in about 40% of our annual CO2 output. This will raise the warming due to our future CO2 outputs by perhaps 0.2C x 110% = 0.42C. Added to the above projection this gives 4.62C of committed warming.

    Second, there is the not-small matter of the interactive mega-feedbacks on warming, several of which have the potential to dwarf our emissions, and of which seven out of eight are already accelerating under just 0.7C of warming. Way back in the ’90s scientific optimism-bias proposed 2.0C as the threshold for their take-off, which was a fundamental error that is still propagated today by the EIA and all others who frame discussion around the 2.0C goal.

    As to the feedbacks’ rate of progress, suffice to say that a paper in ‘Geophysical Letters’ early in 2010 reported the warming due just to albedo loss to date as being equivalent to about 30% of annual anthro-CO2 output. – I.e. more than a new China’s-worth of impact.

    In sum, while the 2.0C goal was always a dangerous nonsense, our predicament now plainly demands an equitable and efficient global climate treaty (see “Contraction & Convergence” + GCI) to terminate emissions ASAP, and also to mandate the stringent supervision of both a global Carbon Recovery program to cleanse the atmosphere (over at least several decades), and of an Albedo Restoration program to rapidly cut the warming that is powering the interactive feedbacks’ acceleration.

    It should be noted that a US president is fully empowered to negotiate and sign such a treaty that includes terms putting any nation that fails to ratify it at a wholly untenable disadvantage in international trade.

    The incumbent (who could sign such a treaty whenever he chooses) is evidently committed instead to the adopted Cheyney policy of a Brinkmanship of Inaction with China, under which the latter will just happen to face massive destabilization due to global food shortages.

    So does US nationalism know any higher priority than preserving its global dominance at all costs ?

    This is the core of the problem, not mere fossil lobby corruption (that provides the necessary veil for an inadmissible foreign policy). If the latter were the core issue, then Europe and all other major players would of course be similarly obstructive – which, plainly, they ain’t.

    With best regards,


  • Lou

    NEWS RELEASE: Report: China’s actions are crucial on climate change

    Note the part, several paragraphs down the page, where it says:

    Paltsev agrees that [a cap and trade] system would be “a very good start” for China, allowing the country to reach its goal of reducing carbon intensity by 40 percent relative to 2005 and increasing the share of non-fossil fuels by 15 percent by 2020. But, he says, “these actions are still not enough, making almost no substantial difference in reducing global emissions.”

    I have the paper mentioned in the linked article, but I haven’t had a chance to go through it in detail and see how many of the system interactions (such as those Lewis mentioned in his comment) are taken into account.

    In general, this is why I find it so hard to believe that we won’t blow right past 2C and even 3C: The systems view of our situation says that it’s much, much worse than simple numbers like 395 ppm of CO2 in the air, etc. imply. Yet here we are, with the major emitters fiddling around the edges and congratulating themselves for ensuring that we’ll drive into the brick wall that’s dead ahead at merely 95 miles per hour instead of 100.

  • gus

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, a few years from now, someone tallies the totals and realizes we’ve ALREADY risen more than 2C. I know this year has so far officially been 5-6F above normal here (central MA), but we’ve seen at least one week each of the last three months where temps were 20+ degrees F above normal. As I write this, it’s at least 90F outside. It has peaked at 100+ in the sun the last four days straight… and it’s MAY! I’m expecting we’ll see actual shade temps of 100+ for at least a week in July &/or August. That might wake a few people up … but probably not for long, since it’ll actually cause MORE CO2 production as people scramble for AC.

    My town has local elections coming up, and, as the reporter covering those elections, I plan to ask all of our candidates what they propose the town DO to prepare for climate change issues locally. I expect to get a fair number of blank stares, but there might be 1 or 2 who have a clue.

  • Dan

    You’re gonna love this: “Gas rebranded as green energy by EU.”

    We’re so utterly screwed. Save some radical shift in political control. Gonna have to think about that! Might not be enough to get cross at the blogs any more (talking about myself there btw, no-one else…)

  • Lou


    I’ve been thinking of what I can say about that EU natural gas thing (and the insanely bad treatment of NG by the IEA in a recent report) that’s erupted all over the Intertubes, but a blog post that’s the equivalent of standing on a table and screaming profanities would serve little purpose beyond personal catharsis.

    I’m more convinced than ever that natural gas will be the undoing of our efforts to restrain ourselves and the climate change we’re triggering. As long as insist on telling ourselves the fairy tale that natural gas is so clean that a full NG embrace is a good idea, we’re only guaranteeing a climate crash.