The Carbon Dioxide Problem Worsens


This is the 6th and final installment in a series that examines data from the 2013 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

The previous posts were:

Today’s post looks at carbon dioxide emissions, and if you are concerned about climate change the results aren’t good.

The “highlights” are:

  • Global carbon dioxide emissions increased by 1.9% to reach a new record high in 2012
  • China led all countries in the categories of most carbon dioxide emitted and the greatest increase in emissions
  • The US had the greatest decline of any country, with carbon dioxide emissions falling by 217 million metric tons from 2011 levels
  • However the US is responsible for 25% of the carbon emitted to the atmosphere over the past 50 years
  • Of the countries tracked, 25 saw decreased carbon dioxide emissions from 2011 levels and 39 countries experienced increased emissions

Emissions Keep Climbing

Global carbon dioxide emissions increased to 34.4 billion metric tons (BMT) in 2012. This was a new global record, 1.9% above the previous record set a year earlier. Over the past decade carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 32%. And since 2004 the increase in global emissions has been 5.9 BMT, which is an increase greater than total US emissions.

Global CO2 Emissions

China was the largest carbon dioxide emitter in 2012 with 9.2 BMT of emissions. The US was second with 5.8 BMT. Rounding out the Top 5 for total carbon dioxide emissions were India (1.8 BMT), Russia (1.7 BMT), and Japan (1.4 BMT).

Emissions in the US are declining and those in China are increasing. Nevertheless, in 2012 the US still emitted more than twice as much carbon dioxide per person as China. Per capita carbon dioxide emissions in China (based on a population of 1.3 billion) were 7.1 metric tons per person. The US emitted 18.4 metric tons per person.

3 Largest CO2 Emitters

While China is the largest current emitter, the US is the country responsible for the most carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere over time. Since 1965 the US has emitted an estimated 261 BMT of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. China is way back in 2nd place at 140 BMT emitted over that time frame, followed by Japan (53 BMT), Russia (52 BMT) and Germany (47 BMT). Globally, 1.1 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide have been released to the atmosphere since 1965. The US is responsible for 25% of the total, while China’s share is presently 13%.

Some Positive Signs

But carbon emissions in the US are on the decline, falling by 217 million metric tons (MMT) in 2012 to lead all countries. Over the past five years carbon dioxide emissions in the US have fallen by 738 MMT, a decline of 11% from 2007 levels. The primary reason for the decline was utilities switching from coal to natural gas, which produces fewer carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy produced. Italy had the second largest decline in 2012 with a decrease of 25 MMT below 2011 levels. Rounding out the Top 5 decliners were Poland (down 11 MMT), Australia (-8 MMT), and the Netherlands (-7 MMT).

Of the countries tracked by the BP Statistical Review, 25 showed declines of at least 1 MMT of carbon dioxide, 5 showed approximately the same level of emissions, and 39 showed increases of at least 1 MMT. The total decline in those countries registering declines was 340 MMT.

China Trumps Everyone

China managed to more than offset the declines in all other countries. Emissions increased in China by 548 MMT over 2011’s levels. India was in 2nd place with an emissions increase of 122 MMT, followed by Japan (+92 MMT), Saudi Arabia (+38 MMT), and Mexico (+22 MMT). In fact, if we look at the time period of 2001-2012, the combined increase in carbon dioxide emissions for just 2 countries — China and India — is greater than current total US emissions at 6.3 BMT.

Discussion and Conclusions

Even those who don’t believe the climate models should be concerned about the growing carbon dioxide inventory in the atmosphere. After all, we are conducting a global experiment on the atmosphere, and the consequences are potentially disastrous. We don’t get a second chance to try it again if things turn out badly. My hope is that the worst case projections turn out to be wrong, but “hope” isn’t a very effective strategy for dealing with the problem.

The real challenge is that even though the US has the largest share of legacy carbon dioxide emissions, that horse has left the barn. Even if the US could drop emissions all the way to zero, it won’t solve the problem as the world is adding the equivalent of a new US worth of emissions every few years.

In the years ahead this problem is going to be increasingly driven by developing countries. Many of these countries are committing themselves to decades of new carbon dioxide emissions with new coal-fired power plants. In fact, globally there are 1200 new coal-fired power plants on the drawing board. These proposed plants cover 56 countries, but 76% of those being proposed are in India and China. For perspective, the much-discussed Keystone XL pipeline that has eaten up so much time and effort from people intent on stopping it might be equivalent to a single new coal-fired power plants.

In order to address this problem, we either have to develop low-cost, convenient, and scalable sources of power so developing countries can continue to develop (otherwise they will continue to develop with coal), or we have to find a way to start sucking a trillion metric tons of carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering it. There are some strategies for sequestering carbon (and I am personally working on one of them), but so far none that can significantly impact the problem.

Otherwise, we can all just hope that the doubters are right.

You can find me on TwitterLinkedIn, or Facebook.