The Weekly Carboholic: U.S. consumer choices control U.S. carbon emissions


The choices that U.S. consumers make are directly responsible for 37% of all U.S. carbon emissions. Direct emissions include those from residences and personal travel. Additionally, consumers’ choices are indirectly responsible for another 28% of emissions via landfill emissions, agriculture, and commerce. As such, U.S. consumers have some amount of control over 63% of all U.S. carbon emissions, at least according to a McKinsey & Co. study that was reported in the Wall Street Journal this past week.

The essence of the study is this: U.S. consumers are huge consumers of energy as well, more so than anywhere else in the world, and so consumers have a greater ability to reduce carbon emissions here than anywhere else in the world. The problem, however, is cost. It costs money to buy new, more fuel efficient cars, and with our suburban sprawl lifestyles, driving less, carpooling, or using mass transit isn’t always an option. Similarly, more insulation in the walls makes both heating and cooling a residence more efficient, but that also costs money. Of course, if you priced carbon in some way, either via a market mechanism or a tax, then the additional cost would also cost money, and consumers would – in theory if not always in practice – migrate naturally toward the solution that cost the least.

This new McKinsey data tracks closely with a discussion from 2006 I found on Leanardo ENERGY’s Sustainable Energy blog. The blog post discusses instead the emissions of a “typical” European family in 2005 and compares it to the emissions of a 2050 European family. In essence, the emissions of the family could potentially be cut by over 90% with improvements on windows, lighting, a smaller home, a single hybrid instead of two large vehicles, less air travel, solar power, a ground source heat pump, and so on.

In a related note, the Congressional Budget Office released a Climate Change Brief focusing on passenger vehicle emissions (which, according to the McKinsey report, alone account for 17% of U.S. consumer emissions). The conclusion is that pricing carbon dioxide (CO2) at $28 per ton would only increase gasoline prices by about $0.25 per gallon, and thus it would have a negligable effect on driving habits and emissions. If the government wanted to use gasoline prices alone to reduce driving enough to equate to roughly a 35 MPG CAFE standard, gas prices would have to be raised to between $6 and $6.50 per gallon due partly to our suburban sprawl lifestyle. As a result, the CBO concluded that direct CAFE regulations would be more effective at reducing CO2 emissions from automobiles.


The financial crisis will affect how the world addresses global heating
With the $700+ billion financial bailout package complete, and yet no guarantees that it will actually be enough, there’s a great deal of understandable concern among environmentalists that all that money will no longer be available for tackling global heating. According to a story in Environment360, Senator James Inhofe has said “Financial realities will make it much more difficult for the new administration or Congress to put forth a very aggressive, economy-wide climate bill”. The vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, William Kovacs, said “Anyone who thinks you can have a cap-and-trade system in which trillions of dollars of new securities will be traded is just not paying attention to what’s happening on Wall Street.” But Inhofe, who has a history of global heating denialism, and Kovacs, who’s organization is dedicated to commerce unfettered by the pricing of an externality known as CO2, aren’t alone in the global heating debate – environmentalists like Sen. Barbara Boxer are adapting their message to the new political realities – somewhat successfully, if the recent green employment weekend was any indication – and both presidential candidates still support significant carbon emissions reductions.

The Economic Times interviewed Yve de Boer, U.N. climate chief, who said that he was worried about not having enough money available internationally to address global heating, and that the global financial meltdown was serving as a serious distraction from the climate agrement negotiations leading up to Copenhagen in 2009. And analysts have said that the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch will make credit for renewable energy projects more expensive and harder to find.

But according to the Guardian newspaper, Lord Stern has warned against permitting this financial crisis prevent the world from tackling global heatin head on. He believes that, with leadership, global heating could be tackled effectively. In fact, he believes that the financial crisis represents an opportunity – since the world financial institutions didn’t address the global financial crisis fast enough, it will serve as a fresh, painful cautionary note about what can go wrong when global risks – like global heating – aren’t addressed early enough.


Arctic ocean may absorb more CO2
A NASA Goddard Space Flight Center researcher and colleagues from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute released a study last week that showed increased storm activity, driven by warmer Arctic water temperatures, was also driving the Arctic ice pack. The analysis comes from 56 years of Arctic storm data combined with a set of ice drift data over the same period. Greater ice drift creates more mixing of relatively warm and CO2-rich water with colder, CO2-poor water at greater depths, potentially increasing the amount of CO2 that the Arctic could absorb.

This produces an interesting dilemma. If the Arctic can absorb more CO2, can it absorb enough to offset human CO2 emissions and slow the rate of global heating? Or will the reduced albedo change dominate, warming the Arctic to the point that methane hydrates undergo massive melting? I suspect some of the existing climate models are already being tuned to incorporate the new data.


Scientists don’t know what fewer sunspots means for global heating
In the case of the Arctic, both updated CO2 absorption by the ocean and albedo changes can be entered into climate models relatively quickly. But that’s not the case with the latest sunspot data, namely that there have been more than 200 days this year without any sunspots, the most since 1954, and the solar wind has hit its lowest level in 50 years.

How this low level of solar activity will affect both the next solar cycle and global heating is unknown. Some scientists were expecting an extraordinarily powerful solar maximum, but are now considering revising their predictions. Some global heating skeptics and deniers have been using the lack of sunspots as an argument that “global warming is over” and that we should start preparing for a new ice age or another Little Ice Age, when a single year of low solar activity doesn’t mean that at all. If solar activity stays low, it may help give humanity more time to address global heating, but then again it may be swamped out entirely by rising CO2 emissions. But until the solar scientists know more about what’s causing the reduction, how long it’s expected to last, etc. there will be no way to really know what the long-term effect on the Earth’s climate will be. At this point, however, given the relative strength of the reductions in solar activity as compared to the strength of CO2 emissions, the safest course of action is to proceed in addressing global heating as quickly as possible.

Image Credits:
Green Jobs Now
Science Daily

8 replies »

  1. I build home wind turbine systems for We just started shipping our newest rooftop wind turbine kits this week. Coincidentally, This week, Congress passed legislation, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, H.R. 1424, that includes a new federal-level investment tax credit to help consumers purchase small wind turbines for home, farm, or business use. President Bush is expected to sign the bill into law. Owners of small wind systems with 100 kilowatts (kW) of capacity and less can receive a credit for 30% of the total installed cost of the system, not to exceed $4,000. The credit will be available for equipment installed from the date the president signs the bill through December 31, 2016. For turbines used for homes, the credit is additionally limited to the lesser of $4,000 or $1,000 per kW of capacity. Wind/Solar Hybrid Home Kits

  2. Politicians and environmentalists these days convey the impression that climate-change research is an exceptionally dull field with little left to discover. We are assured by everyone from David Suzuki to Al Gore to Prime Minister Stephen Harper that “the science is settled.” At the recent G8 summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel even attempted to convince world leaders to play God by restricting carbon-dioxide emissions to a level that would magically limit the rise in world temperatures to 2C.

    The fact that science is many years away from properly understanding global climate doesn’t seem to bother our leaders at all. Inviting testimony only from those who don’t question political orthodoxy on the issue, parliamentarians are charging ahead with the impossible and expensive goal of “stopping global climate change.” Liberal MP Ralph Goodale’s June 11 House of Commons assertion that Parliament should have “a real good discussion about the potential for carbon capture and sequestration in dealing with carbon dioxide, which has tremendous potential for improving the climate, not only here in Canada but around the world,” would be humorous were he, and even the current government, not deadly serious about devoting vast resources to this hopeless crusade.

    Climate stability has never been a feature of planet Earth. The only constant about climate is change; it changes continually and, at times, quite rapidly. Many times in the past, temperatures were far higher than today, and occasionally, temperatures were colder. As recently as 6,000 years ago, it was about 3C warmer than now. Ten thousand years ago, while the world was coming out of the thou-sand-year-long “Younger Dryas” cold episode, temperatures rose as much as 6C in a decade — 100 times faster than the past century’s 0.6C warming that has so upset environmentalists.
    (See hardcopy for Chart/Graph)View Larger Image View Larger Image
    (See hardcopy for Chart/Graph)
    Andrew Barr, National Post
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    Climate-change research is now literally exploding with new findings. Since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the field has had more research than in all previous years combined and the discoveries are completely shattering the myths. For example, I and the first-class scientists I work with are consistently finding excellent correlations between the regular fluctuations in the brightness of the sun and earthly climate. This is not surprising. The sun and the stars are the ultimate source of all energy on the planet.

    My interest in the current climate-change debate was triggered in 1998, when I was funded by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council strategic project grant to determine if there were regular cycles in West Coast fish productivity. As a result of wide swings in the populations of anchovies, herring and other commercially important West Coast fish stock, fisheries managers were having a very difficult time establishing appropriate fishing quotas. One season there would be abundant stock and broad harvesting would be acceptable; the very next year the fisheries would collapse. No one really knew why or how to predict the future health of this crucially important resource.

    Although climate was suspected to play a significant role in marine productivity, only since the beginning of the 20th century have accurate fishing and temperature records been kept in this region of the northeast Pacific. We needed indicators of fish productivity over thousands of years to see whether there were recurring cycles in populations and what phenomena may be driving the changes.

    My research team began to collect and analyze core samples from the bottom of deep Western Canadian fjords. The regions in which we chose to conduct our research, Effingham Inlet on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, and in 2001, sounds in the Belize-Seymour Inlet complex on the mainland coast of British Columbia, were perfect for this sort of work. The topography of these fjords is such that they contain deep basins that are subject to little water transfer from the open ocean and so water near the bottom is relatively stagnant and very low in oxygen content. As a consequence, the floors of these basins are mostly lifeless and sediment layers build up year after year, undisturbed over millennia.

    Using various coring technologies, we have been able to collect more than 5,000 years’ worth of mud in these basins, with the oldest layers coming from a depth of about 11 metres below the fjord floor. Clearly visible in our mud cores are annual changes that record the different seasons: corresponding to the cool, rainy winter seasons, we see dark layers composed mostly of dirt washed into the fjord from the land; in the warm summer months we see abundant fossilized fish scales and diatoms (the most common form of phytoplankton, or single-celled ocean plants) that have fallen to the fjord floor from nutrient-rich surface waters. In years when warm summers dominated climate in the region, we clearly see far thicker layers of diatoms and fish scales than we do in cooler years. Ours is one of the highest-quality climate records available anywhere today and in it we see obvious confirmation that natural climate change can be dramatic. For example, in the middle of a 62-year slice of the record at about 4,400 years ago, there was a shift in climate in only a couple of seasons from warm, dry and sunny conditions to one that was mostly cold and rainy for several decades.

    Using computers to conduct what is referred to as a “time series analysis” on the colouration and thickness of the annual layers, we have discovered repeated cycles in marine productivity in this, a region larger than Europe. Specifically, we find a very strong and consistent 11-year cycle throughout the whole record in the sediments and diatom remains. This correlates closely to the well-known 11-year “Schwabe” sunspot cycle, during which the output of the sun varies by about 0.1%. Sunspots, violent storms on the surface of the sun, have the effect of increasing solar output, so, by counting the spots visible on the surface of our star, we have an indirect measure of its varying brightness. Such records have been kept for many centuries and match very well with the changes in marine productivity we are observing.

    In the sediment, diatom and fish-scale records, we also see longer period cycles, all correlating closely with other well-known regular solar variations. In particular, we see marine productivity cycles that match well with the sun’s 75-90-year “Gleissberg Cycle,” the 200-500-year “Suess Cycle” and the 1,100-1,500-year “Bond Cycle.” The strength of these cycles is seen to vary over time, fading in and out over the millennia. The variation in the sun’s brightness over these longer cycles may be many times greater in magnitude than that measured over the short Schwabe cycle and so are seen to impact marine productivity even more significantly.

    Our finding of a direct correlation between variations in the brightness of the sun and earthly climate indicators (called “proxies”) is not unique. Hundreds of other studies, using proxies from tree rings in Russia’s Kola Peninsula to water levels of the Nile, show exactly the same thing: The sun appears to drive climate change.

    However, there was a problem. Despite this clear and repeated correlation, the measured variations in incoming solar energy were, on their own, not sufficient to cause the climate changes we have observed in our proxies. In addition, even though the sun is brighter now than at any time in the past 8,000 years, the increase in direct solar input is not calculated to be sufficient to cause the past century’s modest warming on its own. There had to be an amplifier of some sort for the sun to be a primary driver of climate change.

    Indeed, that is precisely what has been discovered. In a series of groundbreaking scientific papers starting in 2002, Veizer, Shaviv, Carslaw, and most recently Svensmark et al., have collectively demonstrated that as the output of the sun varies, and with it, our star’s protective solar wind, varying amounts of galactic cosmic rays from deep space are able to enter our solar system and penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere. These cosmic rays enhance cloud formation which, overall, has a cooling effect on the planet. When the sun’s energy output is greater, not only does the Earth warm slightly due to direct solar heating, but the stronger solar wind generated during these “high sun” periods blocks many of the cosmic rays from entering our atmosphere. Cloud cover decreases and the Earth warms still more.

    The opposite occurs when the sun is less bright. More cosmic rays are able to get through to Earth’s atmosphere, more clouds form, and the planet cools more than would otherwise be the case due to direct solar effects alone. This is precisely what happened from the middle of the 17th century into the early 18th century, when the solar energy input to our atmosphere, as indicated by the number of sunspots, was at a minimum and the planet was stuck in the Little Ice Age. These new findings suggest that changes in the output of the sun caused the most recent climate change. By comparison, CO2 variations show little correlation with our planet’s climate on long, medium and even short time scales.

    In some fields the science is indeed “settled.” For example, plate tectonics, once highly controversial, is now so well-established that we rarely see papers on the subject at all. But the science of global climate change is still in its infancy, with many thousands of papers published every year. In a 2003 poll conducted by German environmental researchers Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch, two-thirds of more than 530 climate scientists from 27 countries surveyed did not believe that “the current state of scientific knowledge is developed well enough to allow for a reasonable assessment of the effects of greenhouse gases.” About half of those polled stated that the science of climate change was not sufficiently settled to pass the issue over to policymakers at all.

    Solar scientists predict that, by 2020, the sun will be starting into its weakest Schwabe solar cycle of the past two centuries, likely leading to unusually cool conditions on Earth. Beginning to plan for adaptation to such a cool period, one which may continue well beyond one 11-year cycle, as did the Little Ice Age, should be a priority for governments. It is global cooling, not warming, that is the major climate threat to the world, especially Canada. As a country at the northern limit to agriculture in the world, it would take very little cooling to destroy much of our food crops, while a warming would only require that we adopt farming techniques practiced to the south of us.

    Meantime, we need to continue research into this, the most complex field of science ever tackled, and immediately halt wasted expenditures on the King Canute-like task of “stopping climate change.”

    R. Timothy Patterson is professor and director of the Ottawa-Carleton Geoscience Centre, Department of Earth Sciences, Carleton University.

  3. Judy, I write the Carboholic to present the latest information on the science and technology relating to global heating. While I personally feel that the science is reasonably well settled, that doesn’t mean I feel that science understands everything. I particularly enjoy pointing out all the bits and pieces that show scientists gaining a new understanding of something that was a hole before, and if there are question that the latest science can’t answer, I try to post on them.

    Many of the points made by Prof. Patterson have been addressed in the past here on the Carboholic or in other posts I’ve written on S&R or found in science publications available online. Allow me to address some of his points.

    There’s still some debate, but the latest science strongly suggests that cosmic rays don’t have anywhere near the impact on clouds that Prof. Svensmark says they do. Check out this old Carboholic piece. The gist is this:

    [G]alactic cosmic rays could account for only 25% of the observed cloud formation over the last solar cycle, and that there was no correlation between cloud formation and solar output this solar cycle.

    No correlation could mean that Svensmark is entirely wrong, but it could also mean that concentrations of greenhouse gases have overwhelmed an effect that would have, at one point, served as a feedback mechanism but no longer does.

    The post you quoted also says “CO2 variations show little correlation with our planet’s climate on long, medium and even short time scales.” This is factually inaccurate, I’m afraid. I’ve actually “debunked” this myth in two parts in my post Anti-global heating claims – a reasonable thorough debunking, Myths 6 and 21. The key piece of myth 6 is the image below:

    If you click on it, you’ll see a very clear long-term correlation between CO2, methane, and global temperature (via the deuterium temperature proxy, the black trace second up from the bottom). Now, this does show that CO2 does rise before the temperature rise occurs, which is where myth #21 comes in. It states:

    “Ice core data illustrates that CO2 has previously always risen after temperature increases, not before as scientists are claiming is happening now. Therefore any global heating we’ve experienced is already over and we should start cooling down soon.”

    I’ll ignore the logical fallacy problem with this myth (feel free to read it yourself, however) and focus instead on the pure science problem. A Science journal paper showed that, while changes in solar irradiance on the Earth initially started several of the interglacials in the image above by melting the solar hemisphere, it was the CO2 emitted by the southern ocean that was responsible for pushing the climate to the point that the northern hemisphere melted too.

    In other words, even if prior changes in climate weren’t started by increased CO2 concentrations, more CO2 in the air continued the deglaciation.

    You also said (or quoted – I can’t tell which, I’m afraid) “As recently as 6,000 years ago, it was about 3C warmer than now.” This is true of the Northern Hemisphere, especially at high latitudes, but is not true of the lower latitudes or the southern hemisphere. In fact, we’re now to roughly the same temperature on a global basis that the Earth was at during the Holocene Climatic Optimum. Of course, there’s evidence that the desert Southwest of the U.S. was in a permanent drought and the Great Plains was a rolling, sandy desert incapable of supporting crops at the time. And scientists believe that they understand the Holocene optimum very well (Milankovic cycles, largely), and the same orbital cycles are not aligned today as they were then.

    Ten thousand years ago, while the world was coming out of the thou-sand-year-long “Younger Dryas” cold episode, temperatures rose as much as 6C in a decade — 100 times faster than the past century’s 0.6C warming that has so upset environmentalists.

    I find it remarkable that you find this somehow reassuring. It should, instead, be very worrying. It means that the climate can change rapidly and irreversibility (in human lifespan terms) over a short period of time. And that implies that there are so-called tipping points and positive feedbacks that could kick the entire Earth’s climate over from the quasi-stable point it’s at now and into something entirely different. The disruption that could cause is massive.

  4. Judy,

    None of what you copied and pasted changes the fact that if we put something out into the environment we will eat, drink or breathe it eventually. I don’t think that the science is settled either, but using that as an excuse to not do anything is asinine.

  5. Supposedly all this fuss is about our production of CO2 being able to change climate.
    Well, it can’t and it doesn’t and we are now entering a cool period which will probably last until 2040.
    So, tell me why we have to limit CO2 production when it helps plants grow . That seems pretty assinine to me.
    Worry about REAL pollution . CO2 is a beneficial trace gas only present at 385 PPM..
    If the atmosphere were $10,000, CO2 would be about 39 cents of it.
    You are being scammed.

  6. Judy – The physics of CO2 being a greenhouse gas and being able to change climate has 250 years of study behind it. The fact that it is a greenhouse gas is incontrovertible at this point. How much impact it has in the global heating is up for some debate, but if you bothered to read and understand my comment and the Science paper I referred to, you’d know that CO2 has and does change the climate. This is – again – incontrovertible.

    As for why we should limit CO2 when it helps plants grow, here’s a study that shows that yes, more CO2 led to more plant growth, but it also led to less nutritious staple crops. Given the exploding population, that’s a bad thing. Check out my Carboholic entry on it. And the National Journal magazine has an article that touches on this as well:

    Another little-studied consequence of global warming affects the nutritional content of foodstuffs. Extra carbon dioxide makes plants grow larger but hampers their ability to produce protein. “When elevated CO2 stimulates photosynthesis, carbon dioxide from the air gets converted by the plant into sugar,” said James Bunce, a plant physiologist at USDA’s Crop Systems and Global Change Lab. “But nitrogen, which makes protein, has to come from the soil, so when you increase CO2, the plant gets a little bit unbalanced and it’s making sugar faster than it can pull nitrogen from the soil and mix with it to make proteins. So what tends to happen at high CO2 is that the things that we want to eat from crops tend to become more carbohydrate and less protein.” The protein content diminishes substantially in seed crops such as wheat and rice, “and that’s kind of scary for people who depend on those two for a major part of their protein,” Bunce said.

    Also, you’re math is off by a factor of 10x – 385 ppm is 385/1,000,000, 3.85×10-4. At $10,000, that’s $3.85, not $0.39.

    Of course, the calculation itself disguises two vital bits of scientific information – 99%+ of the atmosphere isn’t greenhouse gas, and of the two most prevalent greenhouse gases (water vapor and carbon dioxide), only one of them persists in the air long enough to function as a feedback mechanism – carbon dioxide. The amount of water vapor in the atmosphere appears to adjust to ambient conditions within weeks to months (something that is pretty intuitively clear given everyday human experience with humidity and storm systems), which means water vapor is highly unlikely to be a climate forcing mechanism.

    CO2, on the other hand, persists in the air for centuries before the biosphere and geosphere can absorb it, all the while increasing the amount of solar radiation that stays within in the climate.

    As far as your “cool period” claim, I’ve seen some scientists suggest that we may stay cooler for the next 5-10 years due to ENSO, but nothing to suggest 30 years. Where did you get that information? I’m interested in reading it.

  7. Judy,

    Yes, as a horticulturist i do understand that plants use CO2, but you might be surprised to learn that they only enjoy so much CO2. Once concentrations reach a certain point, growth is greatly impaired. They also do not like all CO2 all the time. Furthermore, they can only handle large amounts of CO2 when the soil ecosystem is thriving, because they actually expel the CO2 through the roots where it becomes food for microbial life. But that’s besides the point to some degree. Any changes in climate – cooler or warmer – will have a profound effect on plant growth…at least in areas that currently support intense cultivation. For example, corn could thrive with extra CO2, but if you’re right and the climate cools then there becomes a problem of having enough days warm enough for the plant to mature. (a similar set of problems arise with high temperatures, not enough water, or too much water)

    I am worried about “real” pollution. But my definition of real pollution is anything that exists as a waste product that cannot be used a a resource (viably) for some other process. If it’s waste, it’s pollution. You may have noticed that there is no such thing as “waste” in nature (not including man’s activities). That’s how things stay in balance: one organism’s waste is another organism’s food and so on.