NewsJune 6, 2011

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Heading in the Wrong Direction, New Data Shows

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While not as surprising as some press accounts suggested, the recent news on carbon dioxide emissions was not encouraging

By Tom Yulsman

A record 30.6 gigatons of CO2 was spewed into the atmosphere in 2010 from energy consumption. Credit: istock.

As Americans celebrated the Memorial Day weekend, the Guardian newspaper in the U.K. dropped a bombshell:

“Worst ever carbon emissions leave climate on the brink,” read a hyperbolic headline to a story heralding the release of new data by the International Energy Agency, an independent organization based in France that conducts research and provides analysis and recommendations on issues related to energy.

In a press release, the IEA announced that after a slight dip in 2009 due to the financial crisis, a record 30.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide (CO2) was spewed into the atmosphere in 2010 from energy consumption — a 5 percent jump from the previous record in 2008. (A gigaton is a billion tons.)

“I was expecting a rebound, but not such a strong one,” Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA, was quoted in the Guardian as saying.

Other experts were not quite so surprised.

“One would expect that as economic growth rates recovered from a short-term decline, energy use and emissions would recover as well,” says Brian O’Neill, a scientist who leads the Integrated Assessment Modeling group within the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

University of Colorado social scientist Roger Pielke, Jr. agrees: “If there is one ideological perspective shared around the world it is a commitment to economic growth. To the extent that we meet that goal we will see emissions increase — until we de-carbonize our economies. And that means de-carbonizing energy supply.”

De-carbonizing the energy supply means switching from fossil fuels to low- and zero-carbon energy sources, such as wind and solar. That would help reduce the “carbon intensity” of the economy: the amount of carbon emitted to the atmosphere to produce a unit of economic output.

A report issued May 9 by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that a diverse combination of renewables could meet nearly 80 percent of the world‘s energy supply by mid-century. But there’s a looming gap between what’s possible and where the world is currently headed.

In fact, according to Pielke’s own calculations, the carbon intensity of the economy had been getting better for much of the 20th century, but lately the improvements have been slowing. And he says there was no improvement at all in 2010.

In the U.S., the situation is a little different. According to the Energy Information Administration, a shift away from coal and toward cleaner natural gas for generating electricity has caused a significant drop in carbon emissions per unit of energy consumed in this country.

Even with overall emissions of CO2 increasing, there would still be hope if the entire world were to steadily drive down the carbon intensity of the economy, Pielke says. At a certain point, enough economic output would be produced by low- and zero-carbon sources that the increase in overall carbon emissions would slow, and eventually reverse.

“This is known as ‘bending the curve,’ and it would mean that we could succeed at some point,” Pielke explains. “But the fact that de-carbonization is decelerating means we’re moving in the wrong direction.”

Shanghai, China (above) sits under a veil of smog. Developing countries like China and India are seeing the largest increases in CO2 emissions, although new data hints that the U.S. economy is also becoming more carbon intensive again. Credit: istock.

The upsurge in global emissions overall reported by the IEA is not being driven primarily by developed nations. Here in the United States, for example, data from the Energy Information Administration show that while total CO2 emissions from energy consumption picked up a bit in 2010 as economic activity increased, they were still 6 percent below the record year of 2007. And 2010’s emissions in the U.S. were the second-lowest since 1999.

As U.S. statistics suggest, the main pressure is coming from elsewhere. “Non-OECD countries — led by China and India — saw much stronger increases in emissions as their economic growth accelerated,” according to the IEA.

The lack of progress on overall emissions reductions, as well as de-carbonizing the global economy, means that limiting the rise in global average temperature to no more than 2°C, or 3.6° F, to reduce the risks from climate change is becoming increasingly difficult. (The 2°C goal was part of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, and it was since reaffirmed at the 2010 climate talks in Cancun.)

To keep from crossing the threshold, scientists say the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere must be kept below 450 parts per million of CO2. As of April, the concentration was 393 ppm — and rising steadily.

According to the IEA, staying below 450 ppm will require that global energy-related emissions in the year 2020 be restrained to no greater than 32 gigatons. Given that 30.6 gigatons were emitted in 2010, that will be a challenge.

And a particularly vexing one, O’Neill says: “Emissions models show that it is still technically feasible to meet a 2-degree target.  But ‘technically feasible’ means that it is possible to achieve the goal under idealized conditions in a model, not necessarily in the real world.”

Going forward, “OECD countries are going to see much lower growth and perhaps even a reduction of emissions,” Pielke predicts. “Emissions growth will be driven by the developing nations,” whose economies are growing much more rapidly.

“But it would be a mistake to simply point a finger at fast growing economies like China and India,” he says. While the recession may have helped the United States improve during 2009, the situation appears to be changing. “Preliminary data for the United States, and also the U.K. and Germany, show that these economies have gotten more carbon intensive in the past year.” (Not to mention the fact that the vast majority of the greenhouse gases in the air right now were put there by the industrialized nations in the first place.)

Until we make significant improvements in carbon intensity, even decreases in overall emissions of CO2, assuming that could be achieved, wouldn’t necessarily be good enough to avoid potentially disruptive climate change. That’s because the atmosphere is analogous to a bathtub with a slow drain, and CO2 emissions are like water coming from the faucet. Even if you turned down the flow somewhat, water would continue to fill the tub — until it overflowed. 

To prevent that, the world must steadily de-carbonize to the point where the CO2 going into the tub equals the CO2 that’s taken out through the drain, i.e., the natural processes absorbing CO2 mainly through vegetation- and ocean-driven absorption.

And the latest numbers, while not indicative of a climate system literally “on the brink,” are nonetheless discouraging.

“The model analyses show that the 2°C target can still be met,” O’Neill says. “But this assumes that all countries in the world immediately begin working together to reduce emissions to the best of their abilities, that emissions reduction technologies continue to improve and can be scaled up globally over the next few decades, and that there are no limits placed on the use of things like nuclear power, carbon capture and sequestration, and biomass fuels. In the real world not all of those things are likely to happen, which means that meeting the target becomes less and less likely.”