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Record Emissions: 41 Billion Tons of Heat-Trapping Carbon Dioxide Were Added to the Atmosphere This Year 

Over the past few years, something pretty amazing and hopeful happened. Global carbon emissions began to stabilize. This was caused, primarily, by stronger emissions reduction policies in China even as the rest of the world moved steadily away from coal burning and more and more toward adopting clean energy systems provided by the likes of wind, solar and electrical vehicles.

But during 2017, there appears to have been a return to rising emissions rates from both China and the rest of the world. As a result, a rather bad global climate situation is continuing to worsen.

China’s Swing Back to Coal and More Rapid Growth Result in Rising Emissions

As the major present emitter of carbon dioxide and a host to hundreds of hothouse gas spewing coal plants, any big move by China can also really move the global carbon emission total. We saw this in practice from 2013 to 2016 as China began to reign in rampant coal consumption and as global emissions levels subsequently responded.

(During recent years, global carbon emissions have plateaued. But during 2017, a new record high was reached on the back of a return to increased rates of coal burning in places like China. The peak year of fossil fuel burning and the year at which net negative carbon emissions occur are very important factors in determining future warming. And even the best case emissions scenarios will likely lead to 2 C or greater warming this Century. Impacts from 2 C warming will be very difficult to manage with a high likelihood that at least some widespread catastrophic impacts would occur. 3 C warming would be terrible — with very widespread harm and disruption. And it is unlikely that most nations would survive the impacts related to 4 to 6 C warming. Image source: University of East Anglia.)

This year, we see a bit of backsliding by this key energy and climate player due to a combined reduction in hydro based power supply and strong annual rates of economic growth.

Drought afflicting China has hit hydro-electrical power generation pretty hard. China presently possesses about 320 gigawatts of hydro power generation capacity. This is about 1/3 of its total coal generating capacity and compares to a relatively smaller wind and solar capacity of around 150 gigawatts. So any disruption to water flowing into hydro generators can have a big effect on coal use and related downstream carbon emissions.

China also rapidly added solar this year. But it was apparently not enough to offset the impact to hydro resources which increased demand for coal. In addition, China’s rapid projected growth rate of 6.8 percent in GDP also resulted in higher overall power demand — leading to more coal burning. Overall, China’s carbon emissions grew by 3.5 percent or around 350 million tons per year. This increase is well ahead of overall global carbon emissions growth in the range of 2 percent for 2017.

U.S. and E.U. Emissions Drop; India and Rest of World Sees Rise

Other factors included a slowing of U.S. carbon emissions reduction due to a degradation of helpful climate policies by the Trump Administration. Despite this deterioration, U.S. emissions fell by 0.4 percent or around 21 million tons per year. The European Union also saw continued if slow emissions reductions of around 7 million tons per year. Environmentalists have criticized mixed policies in places like Germany that continue to protect high-carbon coal burning. But the picture for the EU has, overall, been one of slow if steady progress. India-based emissions increased by a slower than expected rate of 50 million tons per year. Another somewhat disturbing feature in the new data shows that the rest of the world saw carbon emissions grow by 2.3 percent or about 305 million tons per year.

(Most energy and climate experts did not expect to see a potential peak in global carbon emissions until at least the early 2020s. However, 2013 to 2016’s plateau did provide a hopeful look at what was possible. In order to see an actual peak, the countries of the world will have to be far more aggressive about shutting down fossil fuel based energy sources and rapidly deploying renewables. Image source: The University of East Anglia.)

So even without the big bump in China’s emissions, the world, as a whole would have experienced some CO2 emissions growth. But this single country accounted for almost half of all carbon emissions growth around the world during 2017. And it is worth noting that even a relatively minor reduction in carbon emissions by China this year would have resulted in an extension of the global carbon emission plateau.

A Problem Caused by Fossil Fuel Burning

Where the problem of increasing carbon emissions is coming from is pretty obvious. According to reports, 41 billion tons of CO2 were emitted to the atmosphere during 2017 due to human activities. Of this amount, almost 90 percent came from fossil fuel burning — accounting for 36.8 billion tons of CO2 each year. This overall rate of emission is more than ten times faster than during the last hothouse extinction event to occur on Earth.

(Annual rates of atmospheric CO2 accumulation are now higher than 2 parts per million per year. The last time atmospheric CO2 levels were as high as they are now — around 407 parts per million — the oceans were between 25 and 75 feet higher than they are today. Image source: The University of East Anglia.)

The present increase is problematic in that it also makes it less likely that warming this Century will be limited to 1.5 or 2 C. The scientific community has often identified these as safer limits for warming. But we should be clear that no level of warming is entirely safe. That present warming in the range of 1.1 to 1.2 C above preindustrial levels is already causing harmful impacts like shifting climate zones, more instances of damaging, extreme weather, worsening wildfires, and ramping rates of sea level rise that are threatening islands and coastal cities. We should also be clear that present atmospheric greenhouse gas levels in the range of 407 ppm CO2 and 491 ppm CO2e imply a warming close to or above the 1.5 to 2 C threshold range by the end of this Century even if these levels were to merely remain stable.

An Increasingly Urgent Situation — But the Means of Lessening the Damage is at our Disposal

The urgency of the situation, therefore, cannot be understated. We are presently living in a time during which the safety of global civilization requires that we rapidly reduce to zero presently unprecedented annual levels of greenhouse gas emissions. And the first step to doing this is a swift as possible cessation of fossil fuel burning enabled by a transition to renewable energy.

It is worth noting that 2017’s rate of carbon emissions growth was less than the 3 percent annual rates experienced during the decade of the 2000s. Back then, less well developed renewable energy technology and very rapid economic growth in places like China resulted in far higher annual emissions gains than we see at present. So 2017’s gain may be a blip due to circumstances as combined wind, solar, and electrical vehicle advances begin to take hold of the larger energy and emissions trend. That said, challenges to rates of renewable energy adoption and related rates of carbon emissions reduction coming from right-wing governments like the Trump Administration should not be discounted. Failure to act by leaders in the U.S. and around the world or attempts to return to increasing rates of coal, oil, and gas burning are measures that will result in serious harm going forward.

We are thus at a moment of crisis when it comes to global emissions. We can continue to move forward on replacing fossil fuels with zero emitting energy sources. Or we can return to the very harmful increases in global carbon emissions of the past — at which point the damages we see from climate change will be rapidly enhanced.

RESOURCES:

World’s Carbon Emissions Spike by 2 Percent in 2017

The Global Carbon Budget

Warning Signs For Stabilizing CO2 Emissions

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Climate Change — Why 2016 May be the Most Important Election in US History

“I have talked to scientists all over the world. And what they are telling me — if we don’t get our act together — this planet could be 5-10 degrees warmer by the end of this Century! Cataclysmic problems for this planet! This is a national crisis!” — Bernie Sanders, Michigan Democratic Debate, March 6th.

 

(Bernie Sanders pledges to end fracking and tackle climate change in the Michigan Democratic debate last night.)

Last night, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton gave a spirited debate over substantive issues. To someone who respects political figures who address problems and actively seek solutions, it was a welcome respite from the most recent low-information, public action denigrating, Republican wrangle. But one two-minute segment in Hillary and Bernie’s exchange really stood out for me. And it’s the clip streaming above where Bernie Sanders tackles the critical issue that is human-caused climate change.

And we should be very clear. Bernie is absolutely right — it’s a national crisis that will become an existential crisis if we don’t act swiftly, if we don’t act well, and if we aren’t also pretty amazingly lucky.

A Tough, Tough Issue of Critical Importance

Like many who write on this issue, I often find it difficult not to fall into crushing despair. With each post, it’s like seeing the life-blood of our world slowly drip away. It’s a tough, tough issue.

The posts appear to have an impact. There’s a vigorous discussion going on in the comments section. People are actively identifying problems, taking action, doing their best to contribute to solutions. To spread the word. To develop a sense of urgency. But despite the response here, despite the actions of a vast spectrum of other responsible groups around the world, and despite a growing warning and outcry from the scientific community, the world itself seems to be moving far too slowly to effectively confront the crisis.

The Keeling Curve March

(Atmospheric CO2 is now reaching levels comparable to those seen during the Middle Miocene. A period of time when the world was both much warmer than today and sea levels were far, far higher. Each year that greenhouse gas emissions continue, more heat, more sea level rise, and more future dangerous climate change is locked in. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

To be clear, fossil fuel burning now pumps out enough heat trapping gas to equal one Permian Extinction producing volcanic prominence active on every major continent on the Earth and all going off at the same time. It’s a really big deal. One that people probably aren’t quite so aware of because, well, volcanoes are individually more spectacular than billions of tailpipes, coal and gas turbines, and smokestacks. All efficiently, but relatively quietly, throwing up that hothouse extinction producing pallor. One that hangs invisible in the air. But one whose effects are all-too-real.

The 2 C Goal is Pretty Bad; Continued Burning is Far Worse

Attempts to face down this growing threat became apparent in a flurry of new urgency at the Paris Climate Summit. There the strongest international agreement yet on preventing catastrophic climate change was forged as global climate policy makers appeared to have begun to get a whiff of the gravity of our current situation. But the new agreement doesn’t yet produce enough in the way of committed action to prevent 2 C warming this Century. And it’s pretty clear that Paris’s policies will meet stiff opposition from fossil fuel special interests — who exert far too much influence and control over the world’s various political bodies and governing systems even as they have managed to block many helpful policies and pollute public awareness through the active promotion of climate change denial.

2 C warming by 2100, even if we were to make the monumental strides necessary to achieve that limit, is by itself pretty terrible. Though nowhere near as catastrophic as the 3, 4, 5 or 6 C levels of heating that are entirely possible if the world keeps going all out to extract and burn coal, oil and gas, it’s a rate of temperature increase not seen in 55 million years and a level of warming not seen in 2-3 million years. It locks in severe heatwaves the likes of which we’ve never seen before, terrible wildfires, extraordinary rainfall and droughts, monster storms, city-wrecking sea level rise, habitat loss, ocean health decline, glacial melt on a scale that changes the very complexion of the Earth, sea ice winnowing away to a shadow of its former coverage, amplifying Earth System feedbacks, and a whole host of other problems. It also means that the Earth continues to heat up for hundreds of years more unless greenhouse gasses are somehow drawn down — resulting in a long term warming in the range of 4 C so long as climate sensitivity is about what we’ve come to expect from our study of paleoclimate.

Probably the Worst Crisis Humankind has Ever Faced — Which Makes the 2016 Election Absolutely Critical

Even achieving that rather difficult but probably survivable future will necessitate very swift action. For each year in which a peak in human greenhouse gas emissions is delayed, the more difficult it becomes to limit future warming.

Rates of warming based on global emissions and climate sensitivity

(Amount of warming this Century expected under differing emissions reduction and climate sensitivity scenarios. In the above graph TCRE stands for transient climate response to emissions. It’s basically how much warming you get short term as a result of accumulated greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Note that greenhouse gas emissions need to decline by more than 2 percent per year starting now if we are to have much confidence in avoiding 2 C warming this Century. It’s also worth noting that even a slow decline rate from near now likely locks in about 3 C warming this Century. Image source: Impact of Delay in Reducing CO2 Emissions.)

To this point, if the best case global policy can currently produce is a future in which the world’s temperatures warm by 2 C by 2100, then we have a serious problem. If that’s the case, then what it really boils down to is the fact that civilization this Century faces an existential crisis. A level of geophysical upheaval worse than the end of the last ice age that may all end up being crammed into the next 300 years with a good chunk of it happening this Century.

This is one of the toughest challenges humankind has ever faced. And its solutions require an unprecedented level of government involvement and activism. It’s for these reasons why it’s pretty amazing that climate change isn’t the central subject of every Presidential debate this year. For who we elect as President will have a significant and important role to play in confronting or facing down this crisis. But so far, candidate comments on climate change have been limited to only the briefest of questions and responses on the democratic side, and to a chilling and all-encompassing climate change denial on the republican side.

This is not how a nation readies itself to effectively confront a very serious crisis. Whispers and denial are not enough. We need strong statements and bold action.

To my mind, so far, Bernie Sanders has been the only candidate to address the problem with the level of urgency the situation warrants. And I suspect he would speak to it more if the question and answer format of the recent debates were not so limiting. Hillary’s own statements seem positive, but it’s pretty clear that much of this is due to Bernie’s own responsible and persistent prodding. A little more ardor on her part would be reassuring.

But the point here is that, according to many of the world’s top climate scientists, we are in a worsening global crisis at this time. If there was ever a time when government climate policy should be front and center as a political issue, then it is now. Rapid and radical efforts are now necessary and warranted. So we should praise Bernie for raising what is an absolutely critical issue. And we should criticize pretty much everyone else for downplaying and denying it.

Links:

Bernie Sanders on Fracking and Climate Change

Impact of Delay in Reducing CO2 Emissions

The Keeling Curve

Hat tip to Caroline (Thank you for your activism)

 

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