Energy Information Administration projects U.S. will lead world into dangerous levels of CO2 emissions

Fortunately, EIA projections are usually wrong!

The U.S. Energy Information Administration has projected that the United States will lead the world into levels of CO2 emission over the next twenty five years that would almost certainly lead to catastrophic global warming.  Brad Johnson has the story (and I add some comments at the end).

In its 2011 Annual Energy Outlook, the EIA predicts that energy-related CO2 emissions will “grow by 16 percent from 2009 to 2035,” reaching 6.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (or 1.7 GtC) — [see figure above].  The fuel mix the EIA projects remains predominantly coal and oil, with a moderate rise in renewable energy, whose pollution benefits are offset by growth in energy demand:

This pathway would almost certainly commit the world to catastrophic climate change, including rapid sea level rise, extreme famine, desertification, and ecological collapse on land and sea. Right now, the United States, with less than five percent of global population, produces 20 percent of global warming pollution. Center for American Progress senior fellow Joe Romm published in Nature in 2008 that humanity “must aim at achieving average annual carbon dioxide emissions of less than 5 GtC [5 billion metric tons of carbon, or 18 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide] this century or risk the catastrophe of reaching atmospheric concentrations of 1,000 p.p.m.” To do so, he said, humanity needs to adopt a “national and global strategy to stop building new traditional coal-fired plants while starting to deploy existing and near-term low-carbon technologies as fast as is humanly possible.”

Since 2008, the science has grown more dire. The impact of existing global warming on oceans, extreme weather, agriculture, polar ice, and ecosystems is at or exceeding the highest range of past projections. Dr. Romm’s suggestions were based on the assumption that stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 parts per million would likely limit warming to 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures. However, as climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows write in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, “the impacts associated with 2°C have been revised upwards, sufficiently so that 2°C now more appropriately represents the threshold between ‘dangerous’ and ‘extremely dangerous’ climate change”:

There is now little to no chance of maintaining the rise in global mean surface temperature at below 2°C, despite repeated high-level statements to the contrary. Moreover, the impacts associated with 2°C have been revised upwards, sufficiently so that 2°C now more appropriately represents the threshold between dangerous and extremely dangerous climate change.

Over a year and a half ago, Dr. Michael Mann concurred in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the 450ppm target is “terribly risky“:

So regardless of one’s precise definition of dangerous anthropogenic interference, stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations much above 450 ppm CO2eq would be a terribly risky prospect.

Friends of the Earth UK’s latest report, “Reckless Gamblers,” reflects the science in its recommendations for immediate and significant cuts in climate pollution, while admitting that there are significant global-scale risks that come even with that effort. If future pollution is distributed on a per-capita basis, then net United States emissions would need to go to zero by 2030 (a similar effort by top climate institutes finds the US pathway goes to zero by 2020). Comparing the EIA pathway for energy-related CO2 emissions “” which represent about 83 percent of total US greenhouse pollution “” to the range of merely dangerous emissions pathways:

Unfortunately, the economics that policymakers rely upon is grossly outdated. Even as climate scientists have stopped considering 450 ppm stabilization safe, economists still question whether there would be any significant climate damage in a 550 ppm world (or even a 1000 ppm world). Economist Simon Dietz recently found that the risk of continent-scale economic disaster in a 550 ppm scenario is only six percent “” and that’s dramatically higher than previous economic work. Based on his unreasonably sunny scenarios, he estimates that the “social cost of carbon” “” essentially how current pollution should be taxed “” is around $300/tCO2. And that’s dramatically higher than the official U.S. government estimates.

Suffice it to say our prospects for avoiding catastrophic loss caused by our damaged atmosphere are not improved by a political system in thrall to fossil fuel polluters. Hope for a sustainable future lies in our nation’s ability to overcome the fear of changing our disastrous status quo and conquer the great challenges ahead.

— Brad Johnson, in a WonkRoom cross-post.

JR:  I can’t argue with my own analysis.  The only ‘good’ news is that EIA projections are invariably wrong because they

  1. assume the future will be like the past
  2. don’t model policy changes
  3. typically underestimate the role of technology, especially in clean energy
  4. have been ignoring peak oil and thus woefully underestimating likely future oil prices

We aren’t stuck with EIA forecasts, they are merely a poor representation of business as usual.

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9 Responses to Energy Information Administration projects U.S. will lead world into dangerous levels of CO2 emissions

  1. Lou Grinzo says:

    I think the critical thing to understand about EIA projections is Joe’s point 2, that there are no assumptions made about public policy. In this sense, the EIA is in a no-win situation right now. If they assume no changes that aren’t already on the books (but not yet in effect), then they get beat up for projections based on laughably bad assumptions. If they assume changes, they get beat up for taking wild guesses.

    Right now, with all these balls in the air at once, I’m VERY glad I’m not involved in making energy and climate projections more than a few years out.

  2. dan allen says:

    Hi Joe. Here’s my take on it: Overshoot of tipping points and the speeding-up of ‘slow’ positive feedbacks may well replace the ‘phantom’ carbon emissions from absurdly-optimistic fossil-fuel reserve estimations (i.e. the ones that ignore the geologic & economic realities of ‘peak oil’). I’m of the opinion that we’re headed towards a relatively fast crash of the economic system (& thus fossil-fuel carbon emissions) within the next few years. But…havoc from past emission commitments & future contributions from accelerating feedbacks may well negate that ‘break’. If you’re interested, I address this & its food-system implications at

  3. john atcheson says:

    In one year 2003-2004, EIA revised their annual outlook projections 4 times, trying to catch up with the increase in oil prices. When they finally became believers, the prices fell a bit and so they were left grossly overestimating oil prices.

    That’s pretty much how they’ve operated since their inception. They use an econometric model which requires a number of hardwired assumptions by human analysts, and they typically toe the neoclassical economic line, and hence miss most of what matters in energy markets.

    They have a pathetic track record, made all the more pathetic because, even though they are constantly forced to retroactively adjust their numbers, they never make substantive adjustments to the processes that made them wrong in the first instance.

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    EIA couldn’t project clean energy market dominance because that prediction has historically been wrong. Recall that IPCC reports all assumed stabilizing and then declining emissions due to government policy, neglecting to factor in worldwide corruption and ignorance.

    If the last year’s weather jolts haven’t changed policy in the US, I don’t see what else will in the next couple of decades. Our Congress is a sad joke, completely out of sync with common sense and human needs.

    Ground up action is going to be necessary, along with efforts to educate the American public through aggressive efforts by scientists and their allies. We are in a frigging emergency. Parsing whether the Des Moines Register is going to cater to local biofuel corn farmers, or CBS will need to please car company advertisers, is the wrong kind of thinking. The American public has been robbed and lied to, and new media, along with newly educated old elements, will have to carry the flag here. Excuses and hesitation are not acceptable.

    They won’t do it without a push. Obama isn’t going to go out on a limb. Scientists are going to need to follow Hansen’s example, and commit themselves to awaken the American people in our- and the world’s- hour of need. That means not only correcting errors in the public conversation, but insisting on the people hearing the truth.

  5. Barry says:

    John Atcheson (#3) gets it exactly right why the EIA is so dreadfully wrong recently.

    The one thing the EIA does get right, sadly, is the fact that the majority of Americans still thoughtlessly prefer whatever energy source is cheapest at point of sale. Not cheapest overall…just cheapest for them in the immediate moment.

    As long as fossil fuels are…

    1) Heavily subsidized coming out of the ground
    2) Allowed to dump billions of tonnes of dangerous pollution totally unrestricted and for free

    …then fossil fuels will be cheaper than clean, safe, sustainable alternatives. In that sense the EIA fuel mix estimates probably do reflect where we are heading with existing fossil fuel policies.

    A livable climate requires we make the price of fossil fuels accurately reflect the full costs they are dumping on humanity.

  6. MiMo says:

    “A livable climate requires we make the price of fossil fuels accurately reflect the full costs they are dumping on humanity.”

    What would that price be? According to the main post $300 is too low – based on ‘unreasonably rosy estimates’. So $500? $1000? More?

    The ‘moderate risky’ path for the US is to go to zero emissions in less than 20 years. Which price do you need to achieve that?

  7. Joy Hughes says:

    Exponentially-increasing renewables will make the blue part of the chart gobble up the rest, as solar panel prices decline and fossil prices increase.

  8. Edward says:

    “follow Hansen’s example”: Hansen isn’t getting reported by the MSM. He needs to do something else, like run for senator. Martin Luther King’s speeches got on TV. Getting on TV is the critical part.

  9. pete best says:

    The IEA stated in its 2010 report that peak oil was 2006 so if oil can be 33% come 2035 then it must be in the other fuels part which mean GTL:CTL:Hard Oil (tar sands etc) which can only make matters worse.