Why The Global Movement Toward Reducing Carbon Intensity Flat-Lined

The global effort to produce less carbon-intensive completely stalled over the last two decades, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency. The paper put together a measure of carbon intensity — how much carbon is released per unit of energy created — and found its essentially been flat in the United States since 1990, while dropping slightly for Europe and rising for China

The combined result was that the carbon intensity of the world’s energy production dropped 6 percent from 1971 to 1990, but then flat-lined afterwards.

But because world energy consumption doubled between 1971 and now, that meant a massive increase in carbon emissions. If things continue as they have, the planet will be well on its way to warming six degrees Celsius by 2100. That would mean life-threatening sea level rise, extreme heat waves, extreme storms, extreme droughts, massive collapses in land and marine-based food supplies, the list goes on. If we’re going to get below two degrees of warming — the level scientists have cohered around as the bare minimum for avoiding catastrophe — world carbon intensity will have to be cut by 5.7 percent from its 2010 levels by 2020, and by over 60 percent by 2050.

This will not be easy, to put it mildly. The IEA report concluded that renewable power generation, taken on its own terms, was on track for the two degree goal — solar capacity grew 42 percent in 2012, and wind grew 19 percent, for example. Electric vehicle and hybrid vehicle sales doubled in 2012, and if they keep to that growth rate they’ll be on track for the two degree goal by 2020 as well. But for every other facet of the climate solution mix, the world is falling badly behind.

The opportunities for smart grid technology, more energy efficient buildings, more energy efficient industrial processes, better fuel economy standards, and for shifts to nuclear and natural gas power are all being badly underutilized, according to the IEA’s metrics. The biggest problem is the continued growth in coal use: half the coal-fired power plants constructed around the world in 2011 used inefficient technologies, and coal-based power generation overall increased six percent from 2010 to 2012. The coal sector is so large that this increase alone left its power production 28 percent higher in 2010 than all power production from non-fossil fuel sources combined.

The emerging and developing world is the big driver here: China and India alone accounted for 95 percent of the growth in global demand for coal between 2000 and 2011. In fact, while the carbon intensity of the United States’ energy sector remained virtually unchanged since 1990 — and Europe’s declined — it steadily rose for both China and India over the same time period.

This gets to one of the fundamental obstacles to reducing carbon emissions. Economic development is producing an astonishing reduction in global poverty, lifting hundreds of millions of human beings out of misery. But as a matter of technological necessity, this accomplishment has so far required a massive increase in carbon-intensive energy production. China and India — along with parts of Africa — are ground zero for this paradox.

That, in turn, gets to why America’s failure to put together ambitious climate change legislation is not just a political or policy failure, but a massive moral failure. Certainly, we need to reduce our carbon intensity for its own sake. But more importantly, as the world’s most advanced economy, with living standards that are already incredibly high in a global context, we can afford any disruptions from a wholesale shift off of fossil fuels and onto renewables. Indeed, we ought to show the rest of the world how to do it. And we have a moral obligation to do so as the biggest cumulative carbon polluter in the world.

Instead, thanks to our refusal to put a price on carbon, America remains the single largest subsidizer of fossil fuels in the world. Instead of doing the heavy lifting on renewables ourselves, we’re leaving the less fortunate of the world to carry the burden.

33 Responses to Why The Global Movement Toward Reducing Carbon Intensity Flat-Lined

  1. Mark E says:

    Isn’t 2C the bare minimum to have a 50-50 chance of avoiding the worst effects? The wording of the column makes it sound like 2C is dead certain to be safe ….. but that’s only 50-50, and what the jetstream is doing makes that questionable

  2. prokaryotes says:

    Nothing is safe with 400 ppm. For instance even now we could get a super mega tsunami from collapsing ice sheets.

  3. Paul Klinkman says:

    We invented better light bulbs. We invented higher mileage cars and we’re starting in on electric vehicles. And then what else happened?

    First, the U.S. realized that if it exported all of that rising tide of U.S. coal to China, we could blame them instead of us. That’s the Keystone XL strategy, to send all of the high sulfur tar sand sludge over to China. And then they can keep all of their Chinese carbon dioxide over there on their part of the world.

    For that matter, if the Chinese recycled our gold in primitive mercury cook stoves, in millions of tin cans sitting over burning trash, then we felt good about recycling and we sure didn’t care about them. For that matter, Chinese high-polluting factories make all sorts of our consumer goods these days. They’re the world’s #1 carbon dioxide culprits at this point. We just buy the dog toys.

    The easy oil is gone and Texas has gone pretty dry. Now we have to fight energy-expensive wars to get our oil out from under someone else’s soil, where it doesn’t belong. More generally, the easy carbon is gone in all sorts of ways. Now, carbon extraction costs much more energy than before, even with slightly more efficient pumps. There’s still some oil and gas at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico if you can drill that deep.

    Beyond flatlining, we’re inventing more and more ways to use more and more energy. Have you seen the new luxury showers, for example? We’re in a power dive off the cliff.

  4. Merrelyn Emery says:

    It is also the moral dimension that is the obstacle in the international negotiations. The developing world is asking for justice but isn’t getting it. ‘America saving the world for peace and democracy’ plays well at home but elsewhere, the self interest always lurking just below the surface has become increasingly obvious, ME

  5. Ed Leaver says:

    “The combined result was that the carbon intensity of the world’s energy production dropped 6 percent from 1971 to 1990, but then flat-lined afterwards…”

    Meanwhile, in the “But correlation is not causation!” department, one may take a bemused pique at the History of the Global Nuclear Power Industry over the same same pre-and-post 1990 time intervals.

  6. Something like 15-20% of China’s emissions are for making stuff for export i.e. the stuff we buy. Same is true for India but lesser amount

  7. Ed Leaver says:

    As reminder of the dire inexorability of the situation, The Global Mail has a poignant piece on Kiribati: A Nation Going Under:

    President Tong’s government has been giving much thought to the Atlantis syndrome; how can a small island state actually remain a sovereign nation if most of its people leave and much of the land disappears beneath the waves?

  8. fj says:

    “We believe that what we’re doing here can be models to communities, to cities, to universities, to other large areas where you have control over your infrastructure to better manage it so that it can be a better resource to the communities and the surroundings,”

    Army sees efficient energy use as mission critical

    April 10, 2013

  9. Bill says:

    Globalization pushed heavy industry into places like India and China partially to evade environmental law in the west. Globalized industry is under the umbrella of transnational corporatized systems. Our moral failure has to do with our abandonment of national industry to transnational corporate money. Transnational monopoly capital has no concern for environment nor labor. It only has concern for enhancement of capital. Utterly immoral.

  10. fj says:

    Rapid development and deployment of net zero transport and transit, smart microgrids, and net zero buildings will accelerate the transition.

  11. fj says:

    Institutional and high net worth divesting from fossil fuels makes good economic sense.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    This report, while stating the ‘bleedin’ obvious’, is a real wake-up. The fossil fuel business is the bedrock of capitalism, and destroying its ‘assets’ by not mining and burning them would cause an unprecedented financial collapse. So, as has been obvious for decades, there is no way that the current Masters of the Universe, are ever going to allow full decarbonisation as is necessary. The collapse of the European carbon trading scheme, to which the Australian counterpart is to be joined in 20-15, has the coal industry here demanding a huge decrease in the carbon price, and gloating that the collapse means that even more coal will be used for energy production in future years. This of course means that they are either die-hard denialists, or something rather worse. Moreover, as we know, the Bosses and their political hand-puppets fix financial implosions by throwing money at the rich perpetrators of the crime, paid for by screwing the rest of humanity with ‘austerity’. So, really, this just makes it crystal clear, without an iota of ambiguity, that to rescue humanity from greenhouse emissions Hell, we must destroy capitalism. And I’ll shed tears, not of regret at its passing, but for the hundreds of millions of victims of this inhuman system and its precursors.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    That was one of the great ‘achievements’ of the late, unlamented, handbaggage whose baleful existence was celebrated by the Western parasite caste at St Paul’s this week.

  14. Superman1 says:

    Mulga, Where is the example of a non-Capitalist economy doing hard cutbacks on fossil? This issue transcends ideologies; it is driven by human addictions and weaknesses, which you refuse to admit.

  15. Superman1 says:

    As I posted before, 2 C was driven by political considerations, not technical. Kevin Anderson calls 2 C Extremely Dangerous, and states 1 C should be the target.

  16. Superman1 says:

    I believe the temperature prior to the rapid Arctic ice cap melt should have been the minimal target, on the order of 0.5-0.4 C. Add in a safety factor, and 0.2-0.1 should have been the target. At 0.8 C today, we are way out on the thin ice, and ANY additional CO2 emissions increases an already dangerous situation.

  17. Superman1 says:

    We have more people using more energy, with no evidence of turning back. I believe BP’s 2030 Energy Outlook prediction of 30% fossil fuel increase over 2010 is an underestimate; we’ll mine as much as we can as fast as we can.

  18. Superman1 says:

    The obstacle in national or international negotiations is one and the same; the electorate doesn’t want to make the hard sacrifices necessary to save the biosphere. No pseudo-scientific explanations required.

  19. Superman1 says:

    Her American counterpart at the time was no better!

  20. Jose Ortiz says:

    Costs throughout the United States exploded for reactors practically overnight after three-mile-island, as politics demanded strangling redundant requirements for reactors from the NRC, who sadly obliged. The first factor of two increase in nuclear capital costs from this put nuclear at-par with coal generation in total-per-kwh costs. The next factor of two increase completely shut down reactor construction across the United States, and sent stocks in coal skyrocketing. Its funny, we would not be having any discussions about coal had the public properly responded to Three-Mile Island, and we would have been three-quarters of the way to our emissions goals currently, saving literally trillions over the next few decades. I would also stress that the increase in energy costs in beginning of this century that seriously industry in the US would have been conveniently mitigated, since price for nuclear energy is essentially flat while the NRC doesn’t change compliance requirements.

    A uranium nucleus, when it splits, releases 200 million electron-volts of energy, compared to a carbon atoms 4 eV. It is politics, not physics, that explains why carbon intensity hasn’t improved despite the fact that coal and gas technologies have been obsolete since the late 70s.

  21. Ed Leaver says:

    So. Ross Perot was right.

  22. Martin Vermeer says:

    Perhaps you should provide a list of non-capitalist economies left. A shortlist, ha ha. Does the Vatican qualify?

  23. Jay Alt says:

    Consider using that excellent piece on the 70th anniversary of the battle of Tarawa.
    Nov 20-23 2013.

  24. Superman1 says:

    Remember the words of Lenin: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country”. He didn’t mention renewables. His successors were no different, whether in the USSR or any of the other countries.

  25. Nonsense. Nuclear is a loser.

    It’s dangerous with regulations, and more dangerous without them. It has a high carbon footprint if its entire lifecycle is considered. It requires an excessive capital outlay. It wastes copious amounts of water, and does thermal damage to the aquatic environment. The Uranium supply is peaking at the same time that the waste is piling up at plants around the country, and the stuff isn’t safe to transport.

    Concentrated solar thermal, yielding powere 27/7, has made nuclear obsolete.

  26. Merrelyn Emery says:

    If you want to make a fool of yourself, feel free, ME

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Those are long days you’ve got, Philip. Your argument is pithy and absolutely correct, in my opinion. Nuclear is a dead dead-end, save, perhaps, for reactors that can burn the hellish plutonium poison we’ve created. If the propaganda is true, those are the only ones we should build, and use them until all the nuclear filth is consumed, then de-commission them forever.

  28. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Peak easy-to-extract, cheap, high EROEI oil is as true as ever.

  29. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    There are no ‘non-capitalist’ economies anywhere. The Chinese ‘social market’ capitalism, or whatever they are calling it now, intends de-carbonising as fast as possible and they are increasing renewable energy faster than anyone, save, perhaps, the Germans. Those two, and, one hopes, India, look the best bet to me. The USA of course, if it ever got its act together, could actually live up to its glorious self-regard and auto-hagiography.

  30. Mark Haag says:

    SHort answer; because those who believe in the catastrophe of climate change aren’t in the streets. If everyone who believed in the need to make rapid change were in the streets this summer, change would follow.

    We can’t blame the deniers, we need to talk to ourselves. Every conversation needs to end in: When are we hitting the streets?”