Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

More CO2 emissions from energy, to no one’s surprise

Carbon dioxide emissions rose 1.4 percent in 2012, IEA report says (emphasis added):

Global emissions of carbon dioxide from energy use rose 1.4 percent to 31.6 gigatons in 2012, setting a record and putting the planet on course for temperature increases well above international climate goals, the International Energy Agency said in a report scheduled to be issued Monday.

The agency said continuing that pace could mean a temperature increase over pre-industrial times of as much as 5.3 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit), which IEA chief economist Fatih Birol warned “would be a disaster for all countries.”

“This puts us on a difficult and dangerous trajectory,” Birol said. “If we don’t do anything between now and 2020, it will be very difficult because there will be a lot of carbon already in the atmosphere and the energy infrastructure will be locked in.”

The energy sector accounts for more than two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions, so “energy has a crucial role to play in tackling climate change,” the IEA said. Its report urged nations to take four steps, including aggressive energy-efficiency measures, by 2015 to keep alive any hope of limiting climate change to 2 degrees Celsius.

The report alluded to above, Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map, can be found here.[1]

Without commenting on the four steps outlined in the report, because I haven’t done more than give it a quick skim yet, let me say a few things about the passage I quoted above.

I am delighted to see Birol, once again, stressing the dual lock-in effects of atmospheric CO2 and infrastructure. Longtime (and long suffering) readers of this site know that I think this is a grossly underappreciated factor in our climate mess. I know from personal experience that when you tell even many environmentalists who are “very concerned about climate change” about the long atmospheric lifetime of CO2, the thermal disequilibrium we’re currently in (meaning there’s a lot of warming “in the pipeline”, to use the common formulation), and the long lifetime of infrastructure, from power plants to on-road vehicles to buildings and more, they have a very strong and negative reaction. Some argue with the facts, some adamantly claim that we’ll still find a way to fix the problem with tiny behavioral changes (recycling, changing light bulbs, driving a hybrid), and some are simply horrified and no doubt wondering why no one ever told them about this before.[2]

And notice, if you will, the lovely factoid above about how the energy sector is only two thirds of our greenhouse gas emissions. Given that we have to cut worldwide emissions by substantially more than 66% in the next few decades to avoid locking in climate chaos, that means that some other sources of emissions, like food production, will have to pull their own miracles, even if we somehow managed to zero out energy emissions completely. And when it comes to food, I would remind you, Dear Readers, that with population projected to top out somewhere between 9 and 10 billion people in a few decades, and worldwide food production needing to double in the same time frame thanks to those additional mouths and shifting diets[3], that will certainly be a massive problem unto itself.

But let me be as objective as I can here, and ask you for some guidance. Am I being unduly pessimistic? Is there some escape hatch in this situation that we can yet climb through, some loophole that I and everyone I read has overlooked? I sincerely hope the answer is yes, because the math seems downright brutal.

[1] And let me ask for perhaps the millionth time, would it be a freaking crime for media outlets to link to the bloody reports they mention and not be so anal retentive about the possibility that a reader’s eyeballs might stray from their precious site for so much as a femtosecond? I probably lose two hours out of every work week just chasing these things down.

[2] That last part — why is the worst news in any way news to those already fighting the good fight? — should be cause for a lot of deep and painful self-examination by greenies everywhere. Between environmentalists who aren’t willing to do their homework and find this readily available information, and the climate communicators who are terrified that if they tell people the full truth that they’ll “scare them so much they won’t take action”, I’m not sure which group I find the most infuriating. But that’s a topic that deserves a much more thorough treatment and set of solutions than I can wedge into this post.

[3] “Shifting diets” is, of course, a euphemism for “poor people having the temerity to eat more like rich people”.

2 comments to More CO2 emissions from energy, to no one’s surprise

  • disdaniel

    I commented ~a month ago that coal power production has fallen by 10% points (share of US) in the last 5 years. (Some coal plants closed, others converted to NG.) This is a result of “cheap” NG due to fracking–NG climbed 10 points–but happened more or less below the radar and during a massive recession/GFC.

    My point is simply that when the economics change, the system changes quite quickly.

    Solar made up 48% of all new electrical capacity installed in the US in Q1 2013. The average residential installed price of solar dipped under $5/W (to $4.93/W) in Q1. The average cost of all installed solar was $3.37/W in Q1, almost 25% cheaper than in Q1 of 2012. (Utility PV is much cheaper at $2.12/W average than residential or commercial pulling the all average solar price down.)

    I swiped the data points above from

    The cost to produce a solar panel is now ~$0.50/watt and panel prices have fallen to ~$0.70/watt. In Germany residential solar is regularly installed for ~$2/W, but they are a few years ahead of us.

    The economics of solar have changed radically in the past few years. The US power system may change dramatically in the next few years…

    Obviously this does nothing about the other 1/3 of CO2…but perhaps you are a tad pessimistic.

  • Lou

    Don’t get too excited about the coal-to-NG changes being a sign of how quickly the economy can turn. Those are dual-fuel plants that could switch very quickly, making them decidedly not representative of our other energy consumption — the rolling stock of motor vehicles is converted to a new fuel by replacing the vehicles one at a time, and making a major change in the footprint of buildings by upgrading HVAC, insulation, etc. is an even longer-term ordeal. I think of it in terms of car pooling. Give people a much greater perceived economic incentive to do it, and guess what, a lot more people will do it immediately without having to buy a new car, move, etc. But only those people who can do it will, by definition, and you’d still see a very large number of individual drivers on the roads.

    Solar is indeed a bright spot (no pun intended), but it also shouldn’t be overplayed. Even if you assume a very aggressive solar embrace by the US, far more than anything we’ve seen to date, that still leaves buildings and transportation. (Perhaps a partial solution is a huge kickback on the price of solar, beyond current incentives, for anyone buying or leasing an EV….)

    Every attempt I’ve seen to put together an inclusive map of how we get from where we are to where we desperately need to be, it reveals that the challenge is much tougher than even most of us greenies assume, and the sticking points almost always relate directly or indirectly to the lock-in effect of physical and institutional infrastructure.