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.