Global Carbon Project says 2007 CO2 emission higher than worst-case IPCC estimate

The Global Carbon Project (GPC) released its Climate Trends 2007 update, and there’s some sobering news within the latest update:

  • The concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere was 383 parts per million (ppm) in 2007, 37% over pre-industrial revolution concentrations (280 ppm), higher than any concentration over the last 650,000 years, and “probably” higher than any concentration in the last 20 million years.
  • Actual emissions of CO2 over the period of 2000-2007 are higher than the highest (worst-case) IPCC emissions scenario.
  • Growth in emissions from cement and coal power plants in developing nations (mostly India and China) now account for more than 50% of all CO2 emissions and a related stagnation in carbon intensity (amount of GDP per unit of carbon).
  • The amount of CO2 extracted from the air by natural carbon sinks is rising, but slower than CO2 emissions. In addition, natural carbon sinks have lost efficiency over the last 50 years.
  • The GPC concludes that all of the above combine to produce stronger CO2-driven climate forcing, and sooner than the IPCC estimates.

So, then, what does this all mean?

First off, this means we need to start decarbonizing human civilization sooner, decarbonize faster, and decarbonize to an even lower level than the IPCC AR4 target (emissions peaking between 2015 and 2020 and 50% below 1990 levels by 2050). The worst-case IPCC-SRES scenario has humanity dumping about 2,500 Gt more carbon into the atmosphere than 1990 levels by 2100, and we’re now running above that worst-case scenario. For reference, the 383 ppm of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere currently represents about 812 GtCO2, or about 221 GtC. 2,500 GtC represents an 11x increase in CO2 concentration, or 4,328 ppm – 0.4% of the atmosphere – by 2100. CO2 hasn’t been that high since between 50 and 60 million years ago, when mammals began to take over from the extinct dinosaurs. And remember, the GPC says we’re emitting more than that scenario already. Can anyone honestly say they think that’s a good idea?

Second, with China and India dominating emissions in the developing world, we have to get them both on board to cut their emissions dramatically. Yes, historically, the United States and Europe are responsible for the existing problem. That doesn’t matter any more, and the developing world can’t be permitted to make the same mistakes the developed world did. Yes, that’s paternalistic – suck it up and deal. If the developing nations don’t like it, then there’s the good, old-fashioned carrot-and-stick approach – cut CO2 emissions dramatically and we’ll give you technologies and aid and all that good stuff, fail to cut emissions a lot and you’ll find yourself facing carbon tariffs and cut out of every international organization and market you depend on to grow your economy. Yes, it’ll hurt the entire world to have China’s dirt-cheap labor unavailable, and that would suck for everyone. But some other market will pop up, maybe in Eastern Europe, the rest of Southeast Asia, Africa, or South America. It’ll happen, and neither China nor India would like it to happen to them.

Alternately, we in the developed world could admit that our complaints about China’s CO2 emissions are hypocritical bullshit given that China’s coal power plants are feeding our appetite for products and our economies. Attach the price of all those carbon emissions to the products we buy and I bet this would take care of itself in short order, and probably without causing China to panic and threaten war over a collapsing economy.

Third, the carbon intensity of the world economy needs to drop a lot, and that means a dramatic boost in efficiency throughout all sectors. The nice thing is that efficiency increases pay for themselves in nearly all cases, but not necessarily in a timely manner. Every city in the world needs to do what Berkeley, California is trying to do – reduce the cost of entry for every single energy efficiency improvement, from solar panels to lower electricity consumption to ground heat pump installations. And no new home should be built without every available technology for energy efficiency already installed. Of course, that requires a change in how new construction is financed, but if you can solve the problem for existing construction being retrofitted, you can solve it for new construction as well.

I’m not convinced that the total decarbonization of the U.S. economy in ten years is viable, but if we don’t start decarbonizing not just ourselves, but everyone, really soon, we’re screwed. How screwed is yet to be seen, but I for one think that the purchase of a little economic insurance is a good idea, especially when the first few years of work will result in a global profit.

8 comments on “Global Carbon Project says 2007 CO2 emission higher than worst-case IPCC estimate

  1. I like the idea of charging what products actually cost. Shipping from Asia, if i understand things correctly, is basically free because the cost is tax deductible. Granted, it really is not very expensive to ship by ship. Externalized costs still add up, just not in the corporate ledger books.

    Though the two Asian titans (China and India) are horrific polluters, there is no question that they’re focused on going green. China is investing more than just about anyone in renewables, even while they keep building new coal plants. At a micro level, it is much easier to green the daily life of an Indian household than an American one. When the house doesn’t have electricity to begin with, it makes more sense to put up a solar panel that will charge a mobile and run some LED lights than it does to build complicated infrastructure to get the juice from the new coal plant to the house.

    I would not be surprised to see a leap frogging of the West by China and India when it comes to going green. And i would not be surprised to see it happen fairly soon. China’s economy is slowing…partially because America’s economy is slowing and partially because the deep pool of cheap labor is starting to run dry. The Chinese can’t afford to have a large pool of unemployed, but they can afford to invest massive sums into public works.

    But don’t expect them to change their public tune when America tells them to clean up their act. They won’t be bullied, especially for the sake of America shirking its blame/duty. Look at how they deal with Europeans on these issues, as it is a much different relationship…perhaps because when Europe talks about the environment it doesn’t sound so hypocritical.

    But most of all, we should be in the lead on these matters rather than behaving like a sullen teenager. And we’ll have to learn that you can’t tell your banker what to do…especially if you want to ask him for $700B.

  2. And I was thinking the news couldn’t get any worse in the face of this bailout mess. Imagine if we could put $700 billion toward renewables development.

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  4. What if, just what if …, the relationship between CO2 emissions and temperature was not quite so clear-cut as is made out? Wha if the CO2 emissions of India and China would start levelling out in 10 years (like the West)? What if there are other variables in the equation? What if concentrations of CO2 do not affect temperature linearly (that is, there is a “diminishing returns” effect)?

    In the current economic crisis, how harmful could it be to continue adding costs to production that perhaps do not have the effect that is claimed (or are not actually necessary)?

    Oh, and if carbon emissions have exceeded the initial “worst-case” scenarios of the IPCC, why has temperature not increased over the past 10 years? Do we really think that a 1.3 degree temperature rise in the 20th century will be followed by an 11 degree rise in this century?

  5. Mike asked many things:

    the relationship between CO2 emissions and temperature was not quite so clear-cut as is made out?

    Nothing in the above post was intended to suggest that the relationship between CO2 and temperature was simple or clear-cut. It’s not. But that doesn’t mean that the basic conclusion, that higher CO2 levels means a hotter planet, is wrong.

    Wha if the CO2 emissions of India and China would start levelling out in 10 years (like the West)?

    They almost certainly will, actually. Carbon efficiency will improve as their economic growth slows (and, IMO, it will as a result of social factors if not global economic factors). But if the models are accurate (and every day brings new proof that they are generally accurate, although certainly not perfect – check out many of the Weekly Carboholics for more details), then leveling out isn’t enough – radical cuts are likely required.

    What if there are other variables in the equation?

    There certainly are other variables. Aerosols, the water cycle, terrestrial geologic uptake of carbon dioxide, volcanism, the recent lack of sunspots and slow solar wind, methane hydrates, permafrost melting, albedo changes, and so on. They’re all other variables, and the latest climate models all try to include them or at least estimate them. And the estimates are improving all the time.

    What if concentrations of CO2 do not affect temperature linearly (that is, there is a “diminishing returns” effect)?

    There is some, and again, the models try to account for this information.

    how harmful could it be to continue adding costs to production that perhaps do not have the effect that is claimed (or are not actually necessary)?

    Damn good question, and one I struggle with a great deal.

    Oh, and if carbon emissions have exceeded the initial “worst-case” scenarios of the IPCC, why has temperature not increased over the past 10 years?

    1998 was an el Nino year, so it was extra hot. 2008 is a la Nina year, so it’s extra cold. Take out the effects of el Nino and la Nina and global temperature has continued to increase over the last 10 years (great graph of this exact thing is here). Additionally, 10 years isn’t enough to make a strong statistical argument about trends in temperature. Even 15 years is questionable. And all the long-term trends that are statistically meaningful still show an increase.

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