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Carbon Emissions on Tragic Trajectory

Posted on 23 November 2013 by Stephen Leahy, John Hartz

The following article is reprinted by permission of its author, Stephen Leahy, who writes for the Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency. To access the article as posted on the IPS website, click here.

Photo of Brandon Power Plant, Manitoba, CA

Brandon power plant, March 2006, Manitoba, Canada. Coal is the biggest source of climate-heating emissions in 2013. Credit: Bigstock & IPS

Burning of fossil fuels added a record 36 billion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere in 2013, locking in even more heating of the planet.

Global CO2 emissions are projected to rise 2.1 percent higher than 2012, the previous record high, according to a new report released Tuesday by the Global Carbon Project.

This increase is slightly less than the 2000-2013 average of 3.1 percent, said lead author Corinne Le Que?re? of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK.

“This is the second year in a row of below average emissions. Perhaps this represents cautious progress,” Le Que?re? told IPS.

Still, these hard numbers demonstrate that the U.N. climate talks have failed to curb the growth in emissions. And there is little optimism that the latest talks known as COP19 here in Warsaw will change the situation even with the arrival of high-level ministers Wednesday.

Global emissions continue to be within the highest scenario of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), she said.

“This is a five-degree C trajectory. It’s absolutely tragic for humanity to be on this pathway,” Le Que?re? said.

This year’s 36 billion tonnes of CO2 will raise the planet’s temperature about 0.04 degrees C for thousands of years. Every tonne emitted adds more warming, she said. (If one tonne of CO2 was a second, 36 billion seconds equals about 1,200 years.)

CO2 levels in the atmosphere have risen about 40 percent in the last century. The oceans have absorbed 97 percent of the additional heat from those emissions, which is the only reason global temperatures have not risen much faster. However, the oceans will not continue to soak up all the extra heat forever.

Who is most responsible for the 2013 emissions?

In total volume it’s China, with 27 percent of the total. But Australia’s emissions per person are nearly three times higher than China’s. The other big emitters are the United States at 14 percent, the European Union at 10 percent, and India at six percent, the Global Carbon Project report says. The Project is co-led by researchers from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia.

While emissions grew year on year in China and India, U.S. emissions declined 3.7 percent. This reflects the switch from coal to gas as a result of the boom in natural gas production. Gas contains less CO2 than coal. However, U.S. coal exports soared.

“The shale gas boom in the U.S. is making more fossil fuels available, resulting in greater overall emissions,” said Le Que?re?.

A new tool anyone can use to explore where emissions are coming is also being released Tuesday.  The Global Carbon Atlas is an online platform that allows anyone to see what their country’s emissions are and compare them with neighbouring countries – past, present, and future. It shows the biggest carbon emitters of 2012, what is driving the growth in China’s emissions, and where the UK is outsourcing its emissions.

The Atlas clearly shows that coal is the biggest source of emissions in 2013. It is the “dirtiest” fossil fuel by far for the climate. This is true even with the most modern, efficient coal power plant.

Poland generates 86 percent of its energy from coal and hopes to grow this industry even though it is hosting the U.N. climate talks. In a shock to many, it is also hosting the World Coal Summit this week.

“Our people are suffering because of climate change. I can’t believe the Polish government is ignoring this by hosting that summit,” said Robert Chimambo of the Zambia chapter of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA).

“Millions and millions of people are going to die in future just so coal companies can gain profits,” Chimambo told IPS.

“There is no such thing as clean coal. Energy companies should never get a social license to build another coal plant,” said Samantha Smith, head of the global climate and energy initiative at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Although the coal industry talks about carbon capture and storage (CCS), it is too expensive and there are not enough places to store the captured CO2, Smith told IPS.

For developing countries, renewable energy is faster, cheaper, more decentralised and has the benefit of not polluting the air, water or land, she said.

The narrowing carbon budget is another reason to pursue green energy. To have a reasonable chance of staying below two degrees C in coming decades, cumulative emissions must not exceed 2,900 billion tonnes of CO2, the IPCC says, and 69 percent of that is already in the atmosphere. It bears repeating that even two degrees C is not safe given the increases in extreme weather, ocean acidification, melting of Arctic sea ice and other impacts already seen with the 0.8C of current heating.

“We have exhausted about 70 percent of the cumulative emissions that keep global climate change likely below two degrees,” said Pierre Friedlingstein at the University of Exeter in UK.

This knowledge doesn’t seem to make a difference to most political leaders or delegates at the U.N. climate talks. Some like Canada and Japan either don’t care or fail to realise their responsibility, said Le Que?re?.

“My message to delegates in Warsaw is for every country to make the most stringent cuts they can now. If we wait till after 2020 it will far more difficult and expensive,” she said. “We have the solutions. Going beyond two degrees C is very risky, it’s completely unknown territory.”

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Comments 1 to 17:

  1. Only accounting the CO2 emissions per nation is very misleading. And things like changing the accounting method, as the Conservatives in Canada did to try to claim they have reduced emissions (all they did was change the accounting method without going back and applying the revised accounting to previous years), is also mis-leading (deliberately).

    The benefit a nation's population receives from external CO2 emissions needs to be included in a nation's accounted impact. However, governments of nations that 'outsource their impacts' are not likely to 'be interested' in calculating and reporting things that way. With that type of calculation the US, Canada, Australia and even places like Germany would be shown to be far larger beneficiaries of (far more responsible for), the impacts than they wish to be able to claim. A lot of 'production that western investors and consumers benefit from' occurs in less developed nations that get tagged with the impacts.

    The simple truth is that the powers with the most wealth are not willing to give up any of the best present they can get for themselves just to develop a sustainable better future for all life on this one and only amazing planet we are sure can support life as we know it.

    If the US, Canada, and Australia actually cared about reduced global emissions they would not sell their coal or oil, and they would not consume it either. And they would only sell some of their natural gas.

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  2. The problem, one-planet and wpsokeland, is that these are impractical solutions. The ascent of civilization is energy based. To stop ascension seems to chaotic, the better solution is to bring all people onboard. a) 75% of the population is outside the vessel of wealth; poor. b) If population growth is best controlled by economic ascension; as China's experiment with population control seems to indicate.  

    Alternatively, geothermal energy is insufficient. It is about 44 TW, compared to solar of 174,000 TW. Considering civilization now uses about 17 TW, the 44 TW is not enough. PV is a far better solution, or even wind, a product of solar energy. We argue at length that both of these are impractical too.

    Please don't consider this spam, I believe the host of the website has already considered it and allowed me back into the community. Has anyone considered my argument in Pluvinergy? Not to flatter, but the level of scientific literacy, and open mindedness here is my best hope for a fair hearing.  Being as intellectually honest as I can manage, this seems to be a genuine solution. And if, as I agree with the problem summarized by the article and these two posts, the analysis of the problem is correct, Pluvinergy is the only viable solution proposed. It may be wrong as proposed, but according to its argument it is the only real solution.

    I would really appreciate any comment or direction. The illustrations are very bad in the paper version so I plan to redue the book as an interactive book, so any direction is valuable. PS: It is ok to tell me I am crazy, I have gotten a lot worse comments in creagslist community. But, I expect much better input from this community. Thanks.

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  3. I don't really want to know anything about "pluvenergy." For now, just consider how humans (specifically industrial society) has trashed the planet (even leaving out GW) with the energy it has used so far. Clearly, providing humans with vast new energy sources is not in the best interests of the planet, nor even in the best long-term interests of humans.

    Back to the topic of increased carbon: There has just been an article published about a carbon feedback that could have major consequences in the coming years and decades:

    Nature Geoscience DOI: 10.1038/ngeo2007.

    Here's a link to an article in New Scientist about the research: DOI: 10.1038/ngeo2007.

    Quite a dramatic story! Worthy of a main post, or at least to be included in the next weekly roundup?

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  4. Pluvial@2.  Well perhaps the moderator should have treated your submission as spam.  I went to your website, clicked on the link 'How it works' and was not too suprised to see nothing of significance there, except a link to buying a book on Amazon.  Hm, seems like advertising to me!! 

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  5. PluviAL@2

    Obviously you don't provide any reference to your pluvinergy "magic", why? Because you simply don't have it. Curiously I looked around and all I found is this:

    and a link to some non-existent blog and non-existent youtube video therein. Google reported that that this "pluvinergy" concept existd at least since Feb 2010 (someone mentioned the term on some blog back then) so by now it should be at least widely discussed technology.

    The verbatim quote from the website above:

    Although Pluvinergy is much simpler than cell-phones, DNA technology, or Nuclear Technology, it still requires more detail than can be offered in a basic website.

    We have laid out the complete theory, process, and plan for development and rapid deployment...

    is like the quote from the XIXth century inventor of perpetuum mobile: surely his invention was simpler than the contemporary technology, yet difficult to grasp by "not-involved" reader. That's because te "miracle" was only his dream and indeed, dreams may be quite complex to grasp by others. The dreamers have even patented some of those "miracles". The patents are nothing but just harmeless distraction from the realistic knowledge. Those machines back then were all sorts of spinning mechanical contraptions in a box, according to then fashion trends (steam engine, reciprocal petrol engine), now climate science and earth energy budget seem to be infashion, so the according "machines" are being "invented".

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  6. Oops. Here's the actual link to the NS article:

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  7. From the main article:

    “This is the second year in a row of below average emissions. Perhaps this represents cautious progress,” Le Quéré told IPS.

    Surely, Le Quere should have said "This is the second year in a row of below average growth in emissions"? Perhaps something was lost in translation? A casual reader could be quite confused by this. Meanwhile, Allen and Stocker are pointing out that we need to be reducing the rate of emissions by about 2% or more starting now.

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  8. Here's the link to the Nature article (thanks to prokaryote at RC):

    Ebullition and storm-induced methane release from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Hotlinked URL.

  9. Thanks, DB.

    Picked up by CC now: LINK

    Here's Shakhova's quote in that article: "In 2003, we started from zero observational data on methane available for this area"

    So in under ten years it's gone from nothing to "100–630 mg methane m−2 d−1" or as the NS piece puts it "500 tonnes of methane to bubble out of every square kilometre of the sea bed each day."

    That would be bad enough if it were a linear increase. But since it is part of a feedback system it is almost certain to be exponential in its growth. I'd love to see estimates of total methane release from the area at this time.

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Hotlinked URL.

  10. Ah, I see that further down it says:

    "Shakhova and her colleagues estimate that 17 teragrams are escaping each year, though the new study says the estimates are likely on the conservative end."

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  11. Perhaps a reduction in the rate of growth of emissions is indicative of the real level of global economic growth. It's unfortunate that there isn't a common way of estimating economic growth across the globe, and that some countries employ all manner of tricks to make the figure look as good as possible. Consequently, it's all but impossible to determine if carbon intensity is really reducing. However, energy and, thus, emissions (given that all energy sources have some fossil fuel element and that the global energy mix is still predominately fossil fuels) being a reasonable proxy for the level of the economy, I would say global economic growth has been in the doldrums for the past two years. Hopefully (from the point of view of a liveable environment), permanent economic contraction can set in, to start the emissions actually decreasing.
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  12. Please, please, please....the article and one of the comments say  that Canada does not care. It is more correct to say that the current right wing government of Canada and a certain proportion of Canadians don't seem to care. Some Canadians, including myself, are passionate about this issue, and care very much. I am ashamed of the way the representatives of Canada have deliberately sabotaged climate talks, and hope that the next election brings some sanity to the issue.

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  13. LiveScience has a good article on the methane study, too. LINK

    RealClimate and neven's Arctic Sea Ice blog are both planning lead posts on this story soon. How about SkS?? '-)

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    Moderator Response:

    [RH] You can actually hotlink your own URL's if you look at the second tab above the comments box labeled "insert." Just highilght the text you want to link and the paste the URL into the box that pops up. It's easy and will save the moderators some work. Thx!

  14. wili@13,

    Here's an interesting quote from that article:

    About 17 teragrams of methane [...] escapes each year from [...] East Siberian Arctic Shelf, said Natalia Shakova, [...]; the world emits about 500 million tons (teragrams) of methane every year from manmade and natural sources. The new measurement more than doubles the team's earlier estimate of Siberian methane release, published in 2010 in the journal Science.

    (my emphasis)

    If their estimates are accurate, that would partially explain the increase in CH4 concentration from late 2000s:


    The concentration increased by ~.050ppm, from 1.740ppm, which is %3, while contribution from Arctic Shelf's emissions jumped from ~8/500 (1.6%) to ~17/500 (3.5%). That difference (up to 2%) does not quite make up the %3 difference in concentrations but the most of it. The rest must be coming from other sources, perhaps increased emissions from hydraulic fracking. Keep in mind that these are just rough envelope calculation by myself; proper calculations may give different proportion.

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  15. Replying to SkepticalinCanada @12,

    I am also a Canadian. Unfortunately, Canada is a collective, and has not had enough collective popular support for the 'giving up of opportunity to benefit from unsustainable and adamaging pursuits that can be gotten away with', to get leadership that leads all of the population toward development of a sustaianble better future for all.

    Individual action is important, but keeping 'those who do not care' from getting away with 'what they wish to be free to do', is what is required. The leadership of Canada has never meaningfuly forced the required change of attitude on that uncaring part of the Canadian population ... so 'Canada' does not care.

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  16. 'Global warning and climate change' is a sub-set of the bigger issue of the 'acceptability of continuing the fundamentally unsustainable and clearly damaging pursuit of benefit from the burning of fossil fuels'. Developing a better understanding of aspects is important, but many appear to seek opportunity to claim 'uncertainty about that clearly certain larger issue' by finding a way to raise a question about the minutia of a part of the larger issue to create the impressions of 'significant uncertainty about something there is no uncertainty about'.

    The extraction and burning of fossil fuels cannot be continued for very much longer, and humanity has hundreds of millions, if not billions of years, to look forward to on this amazing planet. And there are many damaging impacts of the activity, including the impacts of the accumulation of excess CO2 (in the atmosphere and the oceans). There is also major harm cause by the conflict between powerful people fighting to get more of the potential benefit for themselves. Burning fossil fuels is an incredibly damaging activity ‘all things considered’.

    An acceptable use of an unsustainable and damaging activity would be to address an ‘emergency’. I would accept that ‘emerging’ economies should be allowed to use the burning of fossil fuels to more rapidly transition their entire population into sustainable economic activity. However, this would have to be a brief transient phase. The the 'economic efficiency or return-on-investment needs to be excluded from determining how long the unustsianble and damaging stage is allowed to continue.

    After all, any activity relying on burning fossil fuels is ultimately a damaging dead end that needs to be stopped, the sooner the better. Those economic activities simply cannot have sustained growth. And since the objective is to ‘lift the least fortunate into a sustainable better way of living’ the only ones benefiting from the burning of fossil fuels should be those who are the least fortunate. The same goes for any other unsustainable and damaging activity like the use of harmful chemicals or using up (consuming) other non-renewable resources. Everyone already ‘more fortunate’ should be ‘getting by with sustainable virtually damage free ways of living’. That is the only viable future for humanity. Anything else would be unsustainable and unacceptable.

    This ‘required development to sustainable activity model’ is challenged by the fact that sustainable activities will always be less profitable and less desired than the more damaging or less sustainable activities that ‘can be gotten away with because of popular support’. The ‘profit motive’ and ‘potential popularity’ clearly cannot be allowed to determine what is acceptable…because they clearly haven’t and won’t.

    So the clear facts of matter are that the basis for determining the acceptability of prolonging the burning fossil fuels cannot be if it is ‘popular and profitable in the moment’. It cannot be based on the desires of the already fortunate to continue to benefit from unsustainable and damaging activity they have ‘grown fond of getting away with benefiting from’.

    The increased understanding among the global population of the unacceptable and significant impacts of excess CO2 is just one of the ways to help raise awareness of the fundamentally unsustainable and damaging ways that many among the most fortunate ‘strive to get away with for as long as they can get away with’. Discussing and debating details of sub-sets of the larger issue needs to be clearly understood to not reduce the urgency of ‘changing the minds, attitudes and actions’ of the population so that humanity actually develops a sustainable better future for all life on this amazing planet.

    That is my opinion.

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  17. One Planet

    The return on investment cannot be ignored. If infrastructure is only required for a short duration, then the financiers need to be repaid in that shorter period. No one will lend money if only a proportion or none is to be repaid. To do so would be a donation.

    You wouldn't lend money or put money in the bank if you were not going to get it back, well not of the magnitudes required. If it was to be a donation, given that the population of developing countries is about 4 times the population of developed countries, the funds required or donation is mind boggling. 

    With 4 times as many people in developing nations as developed nations, during the transition period you suggest the CO2 emissions would dwarf the western worlds current CO2 emissions. It's just not feasible.

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