Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Another underreported story on CO2 emissions: they're getting stronger faster then expected

Back in June, I wondered why a report from the Global Carbon Project that emissions rose faster then expected got little coverage.

4 months later another Global Carbon Project study, this one also published (and available for free) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that asks why this is happening is also not getting much attention. Its a shame because it has some sobering news: global emissions are rising faster then the most pessimistic scenario used in the recent IPCC climate predictions. (hat tip to Michael Tobis for finding this.)

USAToday had some good matter-of-fact coverage on the "why" question:
The growing world economy is fueling the emissions. "Our ability to become more carbon-efficient is declining, especially since 2000," Field says. "We're no longer seeing progress in this area, which is probably a reflection of a large amount of coal coming into the power system."
The Associated Press had an article by Randolph Schmid but I haven't seen it picked up anywhere except the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
Carbon dioxide emissions were 35 percent higher in 2006 than in 1990, a much faster growth rate than anticipated, researchers led by Josep G. Canadell, of Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, report in Tuesday's edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Increased industrial use of fossil fuels coupled with a decline in the gas absorbed by the oceans and land were listed as causes of the increase.
Unfortunately, Mr. Schmid felt the need to include some "balance" and NCAR's Kevin Trenberth, surprisingly, supplied it:
Trenberth noted that carbon dioxide is not the whole story — methane emissions have declined, so total greenhouse gases are not increasing as much as carbon dioxide alone. Also, he added, other pollution plays a role by cooling.

There are changes from year to year in the fraction of the atmosphere made up of carbon dioxide and the question is whether this increase is transient or will be sustained, he said.
For the first point: the CO2 is the one that will stick around for thousands of years and he knows that. For the second: that might matter if it was a new trend but this is plainly a continuation of an existing trend.

A companion article (also free) goes in to the global and regional drivers of the rise. Its worth quoting at length despite the tiny bit of algebra:
The strong global fossil-fuel emissions growth since 2000 was
driven not only by long-term increases in population (P) and
per-capita global GDP (g) but also by a cessation or reversal of
earlier declining trends in the energy intensity of GDP (e) and
the carbon intensity of energy ( f ). In particular, steady or slightly
increasing recent trends in f occurred in both developed and
developing regions. In this sense, no region is decarbonizing its
energy supply.
Continuous decreases in both e and f (and therefore in carbon
intensity of GDP, h=e*f) are postulated in all IPCC emissions
scenarios to 2100, so that the predicted rate of global
emissions growth is less than the economic growth rate. Without
these postulated decreases, predicted emissions over the coming
century would be up to several times greater than those from
current emissions scenarios. In the unfolding reality since
2000, the global average f has actually increased, and there has
not been a compensating faster decrease in e. Consequently,
there has been a cessation of the earlier declining trend in h. This
has meant that even the more fossil-fuel-intensive IPCC scenarios
underestimated actual emissions growth during this period.
GCP also made available a PowerPoint presentation with some figures. Initforthegold explains the best ones. There's been plenty of blog coverage: ClimateProgress, Rabett Run, and Stoat but they all seem to focus on the one part of the increase: a slow down in the natural carbon sink. But Canadell et. al. say that's only 18% of the increase, the rest is the growing world economy and its increasing reliance on coal.

If you're feeling depressed just remember: we've just now started talking collectively about doing something. There's a lot of inertia in the system so the previous years of neglect will continue to generate bad stories like this while we work to prevent future worse stories.

1 comment:

inel said...

The fourth UN Global Environment Outlook report, GEO4, also had ephemeral coverage. That week was a busy one for me—I merely heard about GEO4 in passing, and all's been pretty quiet on that front since.

GEO4 was released on 25 October 2007, and covers a lot of ground in a total of 572 pages. I just remembered to check it when I went back to look at the BBC's simple graphical summary, to compare with your underreported stories.

I was tempted (but will hold back for now) to paste an example from Chapter 2 Atmosphere - Main Messages to show that summary sections of this GEO4 report are written in a clear style that high school kids could understand and use, along with graphs and tables, for Geography and Science projects. My point is that there is no reason why this could not be handled in greater depth and/or in snippets as a series of topics by environmental correspondents more often. I guess they have their work cut out with IPCC reports and Bali conferences these days!

GEO4 does refer to carbon sinks as part of a functioning ecosystem, but it really emphasises the anthropogenic drivers: population, increased energy, especially fossil fuel use, and the lack of leadership and cooperation in addressing these problems effectively.