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What If The World Can’t Cut Its Carbon Emissions?

What If The World Can’t Cut Its Carbon Emissions?

Many people, including more than a few prominent politicians, accept that global warming must be limited to no more than two degrees C above the pre-industrial mean, or a little more than one degree C above where we are now, to avoid dangerous interference with the Earth’s climate. Let’s assume these people are right, that the 2C threshold really does represent the climatic equivalent of a cliff and that bad things will happen if we drive off it.

So how do we apply the brakes?

According to the IPCC by limiting cumulative future global carbon emissions to no more than 500 gigatons, and even then we would have only a two-thirds chance of success:

To have a better than two-thirds chance of limiting warming to less than 2°C from pre-industrial levels the total cumulative carbon dioxide emission from all human sources since the start of the industrial era would need to be limited to about 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon. About half of this amount had already been emitted by 2011.

Here we will ignore the one-third chance of failure and use 500 gigatons as the “safe” emissions limit. Can we stay below it? Figure 1 summarizes the current position. The black line (data from EDGAR) shows progress, or lack thereof, in cutting global emissions since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) started the ball rolling in 1992. The red line is a projection of the black line. The blue line, which intersects zero in 2117, amounts to 500 Gt of future carbon emissions. I assumed a linear decrease for simplicity but other pathways are of course possible:

Current "Safe" levels

Figure 1: Current position on cutting global emissions to “safe” levels

Obviously the world is going to have to reverse course in a hurry if it is to have any chance of keeping warming below the 2C danger threshold. What are the chances that it can? Let’s look at which countries the emissions are coming from and see what the prospects are.

Related: Obama Kicks The Oil Industry While They Are Down

The world’s emitters are commonly divided into two categories – the “developed” countries, such as the US, UK, Germany and Japan, and the “developing” countries, such as Egypt, India, Malawi and Paraguay. We will look first at the developed countries, which presently emit a third of the world’s carbon. Developed country emissions for 1970 through 2012 are summarized in Figure 2:

Developed Country Emissions

Figure 2: Developed country emissions from fossil fuel burning, 1970-2012

The United States accounts for 16% of global emissions (the percentages given here are from 2012 EDGAR data). US emissions have been trending down since 2005 partly because of the shale gas boom and partly because of the 2008 recession. The Obama administration recently adopted rules designed to cut US emissions further but whether they will survive is uncertain, and even if they do the chances that Congress as presently constituted will agree to emissions cuts unless the developing countries follow suit are effectively zero. The 1997 US Senate rejected US participation in the Kyoto Protocol for this reason, and given the opportunity the present Senate would do the same.

The European Union accounts for 11% of global emissions. For some years the EU has been setting an example to the world by unilaterally pursuing ambitious emissions targets, although so far with little to show for it (the downtrend in EU emissions since 2006 is largely a result of the 2008 recession and the EU’s slow recovery). The realization that the EU can’t save the planet all by itself is, however, finally beginning to sink in, and as a result the EU has hardened its negotiating position, stating at the Lima climate talks that mandatory emissions targets must now be set for all countries, not just the developed ones.

Australia, Canada and Japan collectively emit 7% of the world’s carbon. All three are presently somewhat less than enthusiastic about emissions cuts and are unlikely to become greatly more enthusiastic in the foreseeable future. They won’t move unless everyone else does.

Now on to the developing countries, which emit two-thirds of the world’s carbon and are responsible for all of the growth in global emissions since the world embarked on its quest to cut them in 1992. Developing country emissions are summarized in Figure 3:

Developing Country Emissions

Figure 3: Developing country emissions from fossil fuel burning, 1970-2012

China, which now accounts for 29% of global emissions (according to EDGAR; other sources put the figure at 25-26%) is the key player. The UNFCCC exempts China and the other developing countries from emissions caps – in fact it encourages them to build more power plants in order to eradicate poverty – and China wants to keep it that way. China pays lip service to the need to combat climate change but considers economic development far more important, as illustrated in Figure 4. The total disregard for the “Spirit of Kyoto” is almost comical:

China's Emissions

Figure 4: China’s emissions before and after ratifying the Kyoto Protocol

(The lip service consists of a) China’s 2005 commitment to reduce its carbon intensity – the amount of carbon emitted per unit of GDP – by 40-45% by 2020 and b) its recent commitment to make its best efforts to peak its emissions by 2030. Figure 4 shows what happened to China’s emissions after its 2005 commitment. Its latest commitment pretty much guarantees that its emissions will continue to rise for at least the next 15 years.)

India, with 6% of global emissions, makes no bones about where it stands: “The world must accept that India’s per capita carbon emissions will need to rise rapidly if it is to eliminate poverty, the environment minister said on Friday, as delegates met in Lima for key UN climate change talks.” Economic development takes priority over the need to combat climate change in India too, as illustrated in Figure 5:

India's Emissions

Figure 5: India’s emissions before and after ratifying the Kyoto Protocol

The position of Russia, which accounts for 5% of global emissions, is predictable. Under Kyoto, Russia committed to keep its emissions below 1990 levels and its emissions are still well below 1990 levels (Figure 3). Putin has other things to worry about anyway.

Related: The $17.6 Trillion Solution To Climate Change

The other developing countries, which collectively contribute 26% of global emissions, include some in a reasonably advanced state of economic development, such as South Korea and Chile, but otherwise are mostly poor. The poor countries are more than willing to limit their emissions provided the developed countries pay all the costs, and in 2011 the Green Climate Fund was set up to get the ball rolling. So far, however, contributions amount to only $10 billion – a negligible sum relative to the scale of the undertaking. We can safely assume that funds on the scale necessary to reverse the 3% historic annual growth rate in other developing country emissions will not be made available, or at least not quickly enough to do any good.

The bottom line is that the developed countries won’t commit to emissions cuts of the magnitude necessary to stay below the 2C threshold unless the developing countries shoulder at least some of the burden, but the developing countries aren’t going to sacrifice economic development on the altar of climate change, threshold or no threshold. The most they are likely to agree to is token measures that get good publicity but which don’t cut emissions, as China has already done. As a result the developed countries will again be left to go it alone, which as shown in Figure 6 is an exercise in futility:

Developed And Developing Emissions

Figure 6: Developed and developing country carbon emissions, 1970-2012

The conclusion is inescapable. However desirable it may be to protect the Earth from the dire consequences of a runaway climate, the chances that the world will agree to cut its emissions quickly enough to stay below the 2C threshold are somewhere between zip, zilch and zero. (There’s also the question of whether cuts of the magnitude necessary would be politically, economically and technologically achievable if the world does agree, but we’ll leave it aside here.)

Now imagine that you are one of the prominent politicians – Obama, Kerry, Merkel, Ban Ki-moon, Hollande, Cameron, Davey, whoever – who have publicly and repeatedly stated that climate change is the greatest threat facing the world, that the world is in serious trouble if nothing is done to stop it but that a solution is still within our reach. What do you tell people when next year’s make-or-break Paris climate talks show that it isn’t?

By Roger Andrews

Source - http://euanmearns.com/ 

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Leave a comment
  • TeaT on January 01 2015 said:
    If figure1 tells global emissions the scale is wrong.In figure 6 you have global emissions on level 34GT but in figure 1 level is 9,5
  • David Hrivnak on January 02 2015 said:
    While challenging it is possible. We added roof top solar swapped to all LED lights and now drive two electric vehicles and we have been able to cut our CO2 by just over 80%. Not only are we saving CO2 but our fuel costs have dropped $3600/year.
  • laurie J on January 02 2015 said:
    The goods news is that the majority of developing countries are actively preparing and implementing NAMAs (Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions) as a means to considerably lower GHGs while developing their economies. These actions have the potential to transform the global landscape of low-emissions development.

    http://www.namanews.org
  • John W on January 06 2015 said:
    What is lacking in these discussions is the hypothesis statement for embarking on a pathway to resolve a predicted outcome of the hypothesis. The reason for an hypothesis is that it can be tested to see if it is correct. The hypothesis of the IPCC is that mankind's use of carbonaceous materials is increasing the quantity of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere and this molecule will increase the temperature of the atmosphere. So, the IPCC has been modeling the hypothesis for some time. These models predict change in temperature for the future. Everyone should investigate these models to see how the empirical measurement of the earth's temperature has matched the predictions of the hypothesis. I would recommend everyone read the latest IPCC reports. Especially enlightening is the Global mean temperatures Figure 11 25 AR5 (WG1 Page 1011). This graph clearly shows that the incremental temperature increase is tracking outside the 95% confidence intervals of the model predictions and the deviation is increasing each year of empirical temperature measurement.

    Such a result in any scientific endeavor would indicate that the hypothesis is incorrect. The true graph, which is missing in this report, needs to show the growth of CO2 in the atmosphere (which is happening) versus the incremental temperature increase (which has been essentially level to slightly decreasing over the past 18 years).

    No one questions that the temperature of the earth has been rising since the end of the Little Ice Age. No one questions that mankind is burning huge amounts of carbonaceous materials since such measurements have been undertaken. No one questions that the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have been increasing. What the debate is about is whether CO2 is related to the warming of the earth. The empirical temperature measurements versus CO2 levels in the atmosphere indicate the relationship is not the driver. Remember, the hypothesis has to predict the future and to reconstruct the past. So far, the IPCC hypothesis is failing in both counts.

    Most of the discussion on this matter are concentrated on the effects of a warming earth, but are completely missing the proof of the cause. Money should be directed to minimizing the effects of a warming earth, not directed toward an hypothesis which empirically has been disproved.

    Also, CO2 levels in the atmosphere has a very important impact on food production. CO2 levels act are directly correlated to biomass accumulation which provides the much needed improvement in food production per unit of landmass to meet the rising needs of a growing population. At about 130 ppm in the atmosphere, plant life will cease to exist. And research shows that under higher levels of CO2, plants are less affected by drought, temperature, and nutrient levels. This has been known for quite sometime as crops in greenhouses are grown under higher levels of CO2 to increase output and quality.
  • Charles Weber on March 13 2015 said:
    Everyone is stressing excessive use of fossil fuels as causing a green house affect on climate. However, that is the least of our problems. Sucking our petroleum reserves dry, even our oil shale, will have disastrous consequences in the future on our economy (USA) and our security, especially military security. We should use foreign fuel as much as possible and atomic power short term.
    Increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is undoubtedly increasing climate warmth somewhat. However I suspect that at least as great an affect on warmth is the baring of soil by increase in annual crop acreage, roads, buildings, grazing, and desertification currently. You may see an article that briefly discusses this and gives some solutions in more detail in http://charles_w.tripod.com/climate.html .
    Sincerely, Charles Weber

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