Carbon emissions race past all predictions

Carbon emissions are soaring at an unprecedented rate, as previously noted.

We’re reaching the point where, without a World-War-II scale effort to change our energy system, it might be easier to just remove the words “and our posterity” from the Preamble to the United States Constitution.

This point was underscored yesterday, or at least implied, at the Carnegie Institution for Science, where global-ecology scientist Chris Field presented the results of an astonishing paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Contributions to accelerating atmospheric CO2 growth from economic activity, carbon intensity, and efficiency of natural sinks” — the paper is not yet online (I will post the link when it is) but you can see the press release here.

Field spoke about an hour after White House chief science adviser delivered the same pablum the administration has been dribbling out its entire tenure. This contrast is all the more sobering given that next month marks the 50th anniversary of Charles David Keeling setting up a continuous CO2 monitor at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, which continues to drive up, up, and away.

Field informed the audience, at the Norwegian Embassy’s annual Science Week/Climate Action conference, that atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions have risen 35 percent above 1990 levels–the benchmark by which the world’s industrialized economies were supposed to set their stabilization and reduction scenarios. “We are in unknown territory about where the climate is headed,” Field said. Emissions are rising faster than the IPCC’s fastest-growing computer model scenario–even the one that was not included in the latest report because scientists thought it was unrealistically high. The main scenarios for the 21st century, remarkably do not assume that China and India will continue to grow at the rate they have for the last decade.

The paper offers three observations to explain the acceleration of atmospheric CO2. First, world economic growth, powered by coal-intensive China, has sent emissions levels soaring. For a long time, scientists and economists have hoped to avoid a situation in which the world CO2 emissions [from fossil fuel combustion and deforestation] passes 10 billion metric tons of carbon a year. In 2006, the number reached 9.9 billion tons. “It’s going to take a miracle if we don’t pass 10 billion tons of emissions in 2007,” Field said. The rate of growth in emissions itself grew to 3.3 percent a year, from 2000 to 2006, compared with 1.3 percent a year in the 1990s. The year 2006 also saw the fastest increase in CO2 to date, and the period 2000-2006 saw the fastest rise since Keeling’s measurements began.

John Marburger touted President Bush’s 2002 promise to reduce the energy intensity of every dollar of gross domestic product. That was an easy promise to make, because it has been occurring for 30 years, as coal-burning yielded to natural gas, and machines became more efficient. This accomplishment of the administration (finding a trend and taking credit for it), even if it were relevant to the overall climate problem, was further kicked over by the PNAS study, which showed the decades-long decline in global carbon intensity has reversed in the past few years. China’s coal-burning, and to a much lesser extent, the resurgence of coal in the U.S., is putting more carbon in the air for every dollar of economic output. “The recent combination of rapidly increasing emissions and deteriorating carbon intensity of [Gross World Product] amplifies the challenge of stabilizing atmospheric CO2,” the authors write.

The third point in the PNAS paper is that there are fewer and fewer places for all this carbon to go. The so-called carbon “sinks” are saturatinga point Climate Progress has made before. For decades, the oceans and terrestrial life have essentially subsidized fossil-fuel emissions, by absorbing about half of the carbon. That volume is diminishing. Accordingly, the “airborne fraction” of carbon is on the rise–it just has no where else to go. “Together, these [three] effects characterize a carbon cycle that is generating stronger-than-expected climate forcing sooner than expected,” the authors of the report conclude.

John Marburger spoke about an hour before Field. The two highlights of Marburger’s talk were a partial reading of a list of the acronyms of 32 agencies and programs that he says addressing the climate crisis. The audience of scientists and diplomats laughed when Marburger misspoke, saying of these programs, “They are being re–… They are being invigorated…” by the administration. The other highlight came when he pointed to the accelerating pace of observed emissions, above computer modeling scenarios, as evidence of the flaws of computer modeling.

(Aside: Why do climate deniers dwell on the flaws/underestimates of climate modeling, when every other human endeavor also relies on computer modeling? We live in a model universe. When Toyota exceeds its sales goals, no one blames its modeling for not working. When hedge funds make amounts of money off the stock market astonishingly greater than their proprietary algorithms anticipated, no one says, well the models are inadequate, so they didn’t really make that money. When a political candidate wins an election, no one cites the simulated nature voter-database crunching that put him in office. Models always carry uncertainty. If they perfectly reflected reality, and the future, they wouldn’t need to be called models. They could be called “computer reality scenarios.”)

As vivid as I’ve ever seen, the Climate Action conference today showed just how wide the chasm is between events occurring on Planet Earth and at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

— Eric R.


4 Responses to Carbon emissions race past all predictions

  1. John Bailo says:

    2001 – 2006 huh? Gee, that was the period of one of the biggest business recessions ever; just like in the 1930s when global temperatures reacted their peaks. If global warming is the result of human activity, why is there hotter temperatures and more CO2 during the downturns of industry ?!

  2. Lou Grinzo says:

    John: “One of the biggest business recessions ever”? Really???

    In any case, perhaps there’s no obvious correlation because there are significant time lags and we’re looking at an accumulation of long-lived CO2 and its effects over years, not a simple “this year this much CO2 means this much warming” equation.

  3. tidal says:

    Wow, JB… the global economy shrank during 2000-2006? Who knew? Thanks for that breaking story!

    Also, did you perchance miss that part about energy-intensity/$GDP deteriorating?

    And it is not “human activity” per se that increase CO2. It’s burning fossil fuels, deforestation and the like… but I already know you get that…

    It’s oddly clear from the other site that you could offer a great deal, but instead you just want to play the crank. Pity.

  4. John McCormick says:

    Joe, the paper is now available at the following link: