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Science Sunday: Stabilizing CO2 levels is tough for humanity, not stabilizing them is tougher on humanity

By Joe Romm  

"Science Sunday: Stabilizing CO2 levels is tough for humanity, not stabilizing them is tougher on humanity"


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Also, increases in per capita energy and electricity use do not correlate with increases in well-being in developed countries

Climate science is the foundation of this blog, the sine qua non for all the other analyses.

The reasons we must be far more ambitious in politics and policy and clean technology deployment are the increasing evidence of accelerated carbon-cycle feedbacks and the dire warnings from the scientific community about the dangers of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions (see Lonnie Thompson on why climatologists are speaking out: “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization”).

Yet, most new climate science remains either under-reported or mis-reported by most of the traditional media and blogosphere.  And, like CO2 concentrations, the rate of growth (of important science articles) is growing faster as the reality of human-caused climate changes grows — and it’s growing faster than ClimateProgress can cover thoroughly.  At the same time, climate politics and the disinformers and media miscoverage and clean energy solutions and nuclear power and natural gas and peak oil and on and on … also demand attention.

What to do?  Well, I hope to be hiring someone soon to help cover some of these issues.  Also, I have a plan to expand coverage of climate science.

First, I will still do detailed analysis of the really important studies, like these:

Second, I will keep covering the important ‘second-tier’ studies that deserve attention:

Third, I’ll keep setting the record on the studies that the media doesn’t get quite right:

Fourth, I’ll repost pieces from Skeptical Science and Dr. Jeff Masters and others from time to time:

Fifth, I’m going to start doing shorter posts on some studies that just capture the essence of the conclusions.  This is the tough one for me.  Usually, when I see an interesting study I stick the link in a draft post, hoping to come back when I have time to do a full discussion.  I do that in every area, of course, and so I now have more than a thousand draft posts that will never get written.  There is always something more pressing to work on.

There are a good half dozen scientific studies from just this year that I’d been planning to write more on, but the net result is I haven’t written anything on them.  So I’m going to try to fix that with some shorter posts.

I had intended to post an example of this, but, naturally, decided I had more to say on that particular study — and then another more pressing one came up — so it won’t appear until Monday or Tuesday.

Sixth, I’ll choose among the best of the studies that Climate Central is doing mini-summaries on in its new weekly roundup.  In its, “Weekly Climate Science Roundup: March 8-14,” CC highlights:

Paper Title: Carbon emission limits required to satisfy future representative concentration pathways of greenhouse gases
Journal: Geophysical Research Letters
Authors: V. K. Arora, and seven others.

The Gist: One of the challenges involved with predicting climate change is that some of the CO2 we put in the atmosphere is removed by natural processes “” it is absorbed by the ocean and biosphere “” but these natural processes themselves will change as the temperature warms. This paper presents the results from a model that combines a climate model with a model of how the biosphere and oceans absorb CO2. The study finds that it may be nearly impossible to avoid 2°Celsius of warming (the stated goal of the Copenhagen Accord) without drastic emissions cuts in the near future.

This is a classic example of a study I would like to write more about.

The authors focus on the 2C target in their abstract, “The results of this study suggest that limiting warming to roughly 2°C by the end of this century is unlikely since it requires an immediate ramp down of emissions followed by ongoing carbon sequestration in the second half of this century.”  That is a “duh” conclusion for CP readers, but still important.  Stabilizing at 2C is tough.

The study also appears to show that the ocean and land sinks saturate in the higher emissions scenarios (higher representative concentration pathways or RCPs), which is to say the ocean and land don’t take out of the air the same fraction of human-emitted CO2 as emissions go way up.

Here is the key chart:

Arora et al

“(a) CO2 concentrations used for the control, historical and the three future RCP”based simulations. (b) Simulated globally”averaged screen (2m) temperature.”

Note that in the 900 ppm scenario, temperature rises 4.9°C over the 2006 to 2100 time period, which is to say well over 5.5°C from preindustrial levels — and are poised to just keep rising.  This isn’t a big surprise, but it still shows again how catastrophic it would be not to get on a stabilization path quickly (see Science stunner: On our current emissions path, CO2 levels in 2100 will hit levels last seen when the Earth was 29°F (16°C) hotter).

Then again, this study appears to ignore many of the major carbon-cycle feedbacks, most notably the defrosting of the tundra.  In fact, a much lower emissions scenario is likely to achieve roughly the same warming by 2100 than this study models.

Here’s another study:

Paper Title: Impact of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on power systems with demand response and wind power
Journal: Energy Policy
Authors: Jianhui Wang, Cong Liu, Dan Ton, Yan Zhou, Jinho Kim, and Anantray Vyas.

The Gist: This paper analyzes how “smart charging” can allow wind power to cheaply power plug-in hybrid vehicles. (A plug-in hybrid is a vehicle that runs mostly on battery power, but also has a gas motor for longer trips). One problem with wind power is that, at the height of the wind turbines, the wind is often weakest in the middle of the day and strongest at night. However, people use more electricity during the day than they do in the middle of the night. This mismatch might change with the wider adoption of electric cars “” most electric cars would be charged at night, thus using the excess electricity produced by wind power. However, because the wind varies, and because it doesn’t take all night to charge a car, it would be useful for the cars to be flexible in when they are charged. That is, a “smart grid” could help decide when to deliver current to the cars’ batteries, and such an electric grid could charge cars more cheaply. The paper models a possible situation in Illinois in the year 2020, when the authors estimate that about 10 percent of the vehicles will be plug-in hybrids. The authors find the cost of charging all the state’s plug-in hybrids in 2020 could be reduced from about $4 million to $3.5 million per week if such a smart grid is used.

It’s been understood for a long time that the ideal charging system is one in which utilities basically control when most of the charging is done, presumably at a significantly discounted cost, and then there is an extra cost if you want to override that control system and charge, say, during peak times.  Good to see a numerical analysis on this topic.

And here’s another interesting study from CC’s previous weekly roundup:

Paper Title: Does increasing energy or electricity consumption improve quality of life in industrial nations?
Journal: Energy Policy
Author: Allan Mazu

The Gist: It’s fairly clear that people in developing countries are better off when they use more energy. Electric lighting, mechanization, and transportation improve lives. But what about in developed countries, where energy use is already very high? Are people’s lives improved by using more energy? This study looks at increases in per capita energy use since 1980 in developed countries and measures how this increase has correlated with well-being. Well-being is measured by a basket of 13 indicators, which range from per capita gross domestic product (GDP) to the societal divorce rate. Of course, any measure of quality of life is highly subjective. Nonetheless, the author finds that in developed countries, increases in energy use do not correlate with increases in well-being.

The study’s conclusion includes electricity: “The present analysis with longitudinal data shows that among industrial nations, increases in per capita energy and electricity consumption over the past three decades are not associated with corresponding improvements in quality of life.”

Again, not a big surprise.  After all, California kept per capita electricity consumption flat for the past three decades while it has gone up 60% in the rest of America, and they are in the same country.  Sort of.


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28 Responses to Science Sunday: Stabilizing CO2 levels is tough for humanity, not stabilizing them is tougher on humanity

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    More excellent material, thanks. Not only does growth in electricity consumption in developed countries fail to correlate with quality of life, electricity cost per kwh in the EU shows a positive relationship to economic health.

    Eurostat demonstrates that the top four most expensive electricity markets- The Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, and Germany- averaged .22 euros/kwh, and also averaged 1.2% GDP growth in 2010. The bottom four- Bulgaria, Baltic States, Czech Republic, and Greece- spent .065 euros/kwh on electricity, and experienced minus .06% growth in 2010. The bottom four use much more coal.

    The point is that renewables, which may cost a little more, may well have ancillary economic benefits. They are not, as Koch and Peabody keep repeating, unaffordable.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Please correct typo-

    The bottom four countries’ average electricity cost per kwh was .85 euros,not .065.

  3. Robert In New Orleans says:


    Can’t you just clone yourself, or are you afraid of an evil Joe twin with a gootee running around the countryside? ;)

  4. Mike says:

    JR: “…. and so I now have more than a thousand draft posts that will never get written. There is always something more pressing to work on. … There are a good half dozen scientific studies from just this year that I’d been planning to write more on, but the net result is I haven’t written anything on them. ”

    Here is an idea. Set up a secondary blog where you post this sort of stuff and invite others to follow up. Perhaps do not allow comments as moderating it could be too time consuming. People could upload their submissions and you could select some to use as guest posts for the main blog. Give some guidelines of the length and format you are expecting in guest posts. If you don’t use a submitted post the author is free to use it elsewhere.

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    Oops, .085 euros, not .85. Sorry, Joe!

  6. Sasparilla says:

    Sounds like an excellent strategy going forward to cover more – a sincerest thank you for all the work that you do.

  7. David B. Benson says:

    Mike Roddy — The cost of electricty certainly varies; in Japan its about 30 cents/kWh, much higher than the US average.

    The laws and regulations in the United States have traditionally required utilities to provide the least cost reliable power. This has changed with certain renewables standards, but baring those the utilties and state utility commisions still appear to go for the lowest cost for new generation.

    For example, the two coal burners in Washington state (AltaVista) are scheduled now for closure. The utility is going to replace that power source with some combined cycle gas turbines. Still emitting carbon, just not so much.

  8. Prokaryotes says:

    It is of importance to point out that Co2 accumulation within the earth sphere is worse then radioactive contamination. This in light of current news coverage, because ofc both are very deadly, but we can control both threats if we choose to phase out nuclear power and Co2e emission sources. Plus with energy efficiency and saving energy we can tap another potential.

  9. Mike # 22 says:

    Climate Progress is without equal in presenting the interplay between science, the media, and politics. Accurate, honest, prolific are some of the words which come to mind in describing the journalism here–just what we need in these times. A very sincere thank you.

  10. Prokaryotes says:

    Joe, why not setup a community website, which let other people help and participate with the coverage?

    For example a ocean scientist could have his own blog here when reporting about coral bleeching etc.

    If you need the domain name climateprogress.net, let me know it :)

  11. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Of course electricity usage does not correlate with quality of life. There are 6 criteria or psychological requirements for an adequate quality of life (QL) and these can be obtained at adequate and sustainable levels only when people are working together as equals sharing responsibility for the coordination and control for their affairs. This has been proven time and time again over the last 60 years and there are no disconfirmatory studies.

    Over what is a quite low level of material consumption, additional consumption makes an insignificant difference to QL. Materialism and over consumption is a symptom of inadequate QL and its source, a society riddled with organizations of all sorts based on bosses-subordinates, i.e. inequality which breeds competition and self interest.

    Do not be mislead by theories such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for which there has never been sufficient evidence; in fact all the evidence points the other way, ME

  12. Prokaryotes says:

    Plus, i recommend to setup a climate wiki. Though to keep up with the paced acceleration of events and science. It could be public accessible and editable, but it is not required if you recruit a team. Moderators could be picked to weed out the trolls.

  13. Prokaryotes says:

    Mike Roddy sasy “They are not, as Koch and Peabody keep repeating, unaffordable.”

    What pro fossil industry is not realizing is that you have an unlimited source of energy when tapping clean energy. Which means, once you have established the generation of these kind of energy sources, you have in continuous inflow of money. Plus you have to exchange and update existing technology, which again offers incredible market realization. Something fossil energy clearly cannot provide.

    And from a national security standpoint it makes a lot of sense to have decentralized energy sources within your own country and local cluster. I even think that countries will be forced to have national energy generation plus decentralized small energy grids which are interconnected, because of the doom of climate weirding.

  14. “This study looks at increases in per capita energy use since 1980 in developed countries and measures how this increase has correlated with well-being. Well-being is measured by a basket of 13 indicators, which range from per capita gross domestic product (GDP) to the societal divorce rate.”

    They use per capita GDP as one of their measures of well-being, but the evidence seems to show that higher per capita GDP does not increase happiness in developed nations. The best summary of the data is in Derek Bok, the politics of happiness.

  15. Joan Savage says:

    Joe, I’m looking forward to your discussion of Arora et al. “Carbon emission limits required to satisfy future representative concentration pathways of greenhouse gases.”

    Dynamics of desertification, deforestation, flooded soils, hot soils, and acid ocean alter the ground-assumptions about the carbon cycle. This is of critical importance, as you know.

    Bring it on!

    [JR: Oh, sorry, that was it.]

  16. Joan Savage says:

    “Then again, this study appears to ignore many of the major carbon-cycle feedbacks, most notably the defrosting of the tundra. In fact, a much lower emissions scenario is likely to achieve roughly the same warming by 2100 than this study models.”

    That’s it. Yes.

  17. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Also, see the Atlantic, April 2011. Secret Fears of the Super-Rich by Graeme Wood.

    The little darlings are suffering from “a litany of anxieties”, ME

  18. Lewis C says:

    Joe – this site is already unique in the quality and quantity of the posts on the many aspects of the climate question. Extending the number of posts would be very welcome of course, but to avoid risking a decline of overall effectiveness several options may be worth considering. From this perspective I’d like to offer some suggestions.

    The first need, as you remark, is getting more assistance in the office. Your workload must be pretty onerous and, with respect, I’d observe that your wellbeing is the site’s most critical resource.
    In this light there is the untapped resource of the regular posters, who could no doubt provide moderation for threads – as works well on some comparable sites. To avoid burn-out and incumbency issues arising moderation-duties might at best be rotated between suitable candidates – perhaps per three months ?

    A further admin-saving option would be to discreetly end the moderating of those commenters who’ve shown no sign of trolling or abuse after a suitable number of posts – which privilege could be withdrawn at will. To the extent that this also cuts the present disruption of discussions, and allowed you more time to read and respond to points in the threads, it could be very welcome indeed. Your increased participation in discussions is one aspect that I think most here would view as a real advance of the site.

    With regard to your draft-posts conundrum, additional short posts, and also the posting of links to reports with only a sentence of description, would seem very sensible – and preferable to the frustration of seeing them pile up unused.

    Yet your current rate of posting already leaves discussion curtailed as posts shift rapidly down the front page. A response to a post 3 days old can rapidly transit the ‘recent comments’ box and, short of people sparing the time to scroll down all the posts and open each of them to see if there are new responses, it then disappears into the archive unread.

    So to avoid an increased quantity of posts acting to diminish the quality of their discussion, perhaps you’d consider replacing the ‘recent-comments’ box with a clickable ‘recent-comments’ page, listing say the forty most recent posts to have new comments, with just the comment number, date and author shown. This could substantially enhance discussions by giving confidence that comments on past posts will be visible, and are thus worth spending time on.

    The provision of a ‘nested’ comments format would also help greatly help to refine discussion by providing far better focus within threads on the particular aspects of an issue. Starting a response in a sixty-comments thread with “Fred at #13″ is plainly sub-optimal, particularly for attracting the interest of new and uncommitted readership.

    Beside easing admin issues and advancing the discussion format, there is one further area where I’d suggest a change – namely the coverage of politics and diplomacy. While internal US politics is a staple of your posts (and to my mind unequalled on any other site) there is a notable lack of coverage on any public site-&-forum of the international relations and diplomatic parameters of achieving the critically significant global Climate Treaty. In particular, there seems a lamentable lack of discussion across the web of the necessary science-based carbon-eq. budget the treaty must reflect, and of the sufficient framework by which its allocation of national emission rights under that budget may be both negotiable and be seen in practice as sufficiently equitable to endure the predictably intensifying geo-political stresses.

    By default, in the absence of these discussions across the web, the lethal delusion is growing that market forces with govt. aid can be relied on to bring non-fossil energies on stream to somehow ‘displace’ fossil fuels globally at a rate that will resolve the GHG problem. The flaws in this outlook are too numerous to list here – and no doubt are very evident to you. Suffice to say that such is the lack of public discussion of the treaty’s requirements, and the rise of the ‘market-forces’ delusion, that the denialists’ central goal of the treaty’s prevention is still gaining ground. In short, if CP doesn’t expand its coverage of the issue, it is hard to see who will.

    Hoping these ideas may be of interest, and with my thanks and respect for your outstanding work,


  19. I get so much from your site Joe and I really marvel at how much you produce. I wish Robert in New Orleans (#3) was right and you could just clone yourself. Your ideas on how to be strategic and more efficient in the future seem great to me. Thanks for all your great work.

  20. Merrelyn Emery says:

    My previous posting re the article in the Atlantic was flippant and catty. Sorry.

    The real import of it is that when you have inequality flowing from dominance-subservience, nobody wins – everybody loses, ME

  21. Magnus W says:

    Some news on CCS:
    The global commitment to carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies remains strong, according to The Global Status of CCS: 2010 report released by the Global CCS Institute. The report identifies 234 active or planned CCS projects ranging across technologies, project types and sectors at the end of 2010, a net increase of 21 projects since the previous year. Seventy-seven are fully integrated, large-scale projects demonstrating the full CCS value chain.

  22. Raul M. says:

    So many directions of discussion, one
    Suggestion in discussion is the concept
    Of advance and retreat when trying to
    Help others see a better way.
    Lewis C., my compliments on your
    Earth Energy Ballance is an important
    Fact of life, but for peace of mind it is
    Important to know the limits of personal

  23. Morocco Bama says:

    In the spirit of Merrelyn’s post, this was one of Joe Bageant’s last posted comments before he died of cancer a couple of days ago.


    When viewed from outside the virtual money economy, and from the standpoint of the planet’s caloric economy, probably half of American and European jobs are not only unnecessary, but also terribly destructive, either directly or indirectly. Yet what nation or economic state acknowledges the need for a transition away from jobs that aren’t necessary? None, because such an economy could not support the war machines or the transactional financial industries that dominate our needs hierarchy for the benefit of the few. Loaning us money we have already earned, stuffing us with corn syrup. And I won’t even go into the strong possibility that everybody does not need to be employed at all times for the world to keep on turning.

    How many within our personal spheres of influence, including ourselves, fit this description. I know I did before I voluntarily defrocked myself of my CPA designation and withdrew my support from the Corporate World. For example, I have a sister who is an Internal Auditor for a storage company. Of what benefit to mankind is such work? None, and in fact, it is quite the opposite, since storage facilities hold all the excess crap people can’t fit in their already over-sized houses, yet she is so proud of what she does, and the family holds her in high esteem because she is such an achiever….but to what end(s)? She is aiding and abetting, in a very complicit and direct manner, a lifestyle of materialism and over-consumption, and she is heralded for it. That’s just one example of so many.

    We all need to, collectively and concomitantly, look at how we feed and serve this beast of a system, because therein resides the key to dismantling it.

  24. petronelle says:

    Joe, what you do is so important. I hope you can keep it up and not burn out.

    [JR: No burn out at all. Best job ever, actually!]

  25. Joe,

    Shorter posts are great, but I’d like to advocate for a unique URL for each one, if possible. This way it’s easier to refer people to a specific post instead of a big agglomeration of posts. There may be a way to do this so that you can publish compilations of shorter posts but still have a unique URL for each one.


  26. The Geophysical Research Letters study looks useful but I’d like to comment on one specific word choice in that article. It states: “The results of this study suggest that limiting warming to roughly 2°C by the end of this century is unlikely since it requires an immediate ramp down of emissions followed by ongoing carbon sequestration in the second half of this century.”

    The use of the word “unlikely” is inappropriate here. It will be difficult to achieve (perhaps incredibly difficult, given how slowly capital stocks turn over and the feedbacks in the climate system) but using the word “unlikely” is making a judgment about politics, economics, and technology that has no place in a science paper.

  27. Lou Grinzo says:

    One of the great strengths of this site (aside from Joe’s paltry 100,000 words of new posts every week) is the reader comments. I routinely find stuff here that I don’t trip over anywhere else, even with dozens of RSS feeds and Google alerts funneling bits in my general direction.

    So, why not add a PHP BB companion site? (PHP BB is a very common, open source discussion site package that I’m sure most people here have run into a few times, possibly without realizing exactly which piece of software it was.) Joe could anoint a handful of people (in addition to those actually working for CP) who would have the ability to post newsworthy items — just a title, link, and perhaps a directly quoted paragraph/abstract with absolutely nothing else. The rest of us could then chime in via comments on that original post much as we do here on the main site.

    Different categories could be set up for the obvious groupings — nuclear, water, food, public policy, deniers, etc.

    I think this could be a terrific way to get the maximum mileage out of the CP community or drinking club or whatever the heck we are.

  28. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Increasing electricity consumption has nothing to do with ‘quality of life’. It is all about market capitalism’s prime raison d’etre-profit maximisation in pursuit of capital accumulation by the tiny, global, parasitic elite. Everything else in existence is an ‘externality’ of no great account. A wonderful example of how this death-cult works in real life is the current hysteria amongst the brain-dead and morally insane fraction of the Australian public. Faced with steadily rising electricity prices, the result of profit-gouging by capitalists to defray the costs of purchasing privatised electricity assets, during the great asset-stripping orgy engaged in by both parties in recent decades, that has stripped nearly all the common wealth built up by Australian taxpayers over generations (the money raised was ‘recycled’ as tax cuts delivered, overwhelmingly, to the rich)the public, in its idiocy, has been convinced to blame a so-far non-existent ‘carbon price’ for their travail. Not the Big Business Bosses-they are, of course, the very peak of human achievement and talent. No, it is the $5 extra a week that will be leveed on the average household that has the rabble in a hysteria, and delivered the greatest ever swing in politics in this country, away from Labor and the Greens. You can really tell a lot about a people who value their descendants’ lives as worth less than $5 a week. Now for Julia Gillard’s high-octane retreat. Don’t expect any leadership, intellectual input or moral sanity from this neck of the woods. As ever greed, stupidity, denial and a gigantic sense of entitlement will trump everything else, even self-preservation.