April 16, 2009

Who is Behind the Current Emissions Trends?

There is a lot being made in some circles about how we are currently on an emissions pathway that exceeds even the worst case projections used by the IPCC. This is used to support pleadings that we take immediate and significant action to reduce our profligate usage of fossil fuels, or we risk making the planet inhospitable to human societies.

The problem is that it is unclear who “we” are. Since most of these pleadings seem to be aimed at the current U.S. Congress to get it to pass legislation to limit the lifestyle of those under its control, it would seem like “we” are Americans.

But it this really a very effective course of action? Are Americans the reason that the current pathway of total global carbon dioxide emissions exceeds the IPCC’s wildest expectations? Or is there a more appropriate target audience?

To help you decide for yourself, we plot below the annual (energy-based) carbon dioxide emissions from various portions of the world for the past 10 years (through 2006, the last data available from the Energy Information Administration).

Figure 1. Annual energy-related carbon dioxide emissions from various portions of the world, 1997-2006 (source: Energy Information Administration)

Notice that one of these things is not like the others. And that thing is…China.

The emissions growth in China over the past 10 years (actually over the past 6-7) is simply astounding. Since 2000, China has increased its CO2 emissions by nearly 50% more than the rest of the world combined. In fact, had China’s CO2 emission changes for the past 10 years paralleled those of the United States (which was responsible for only a few percent of the global emission growth since 2000), the world would be on an emissions pathway that would lie very near the lowest scenario considered by the IPCC.

If other words, “we” (Americans) have little responsibility for “our” (global) emissions growth during the past 5-10 years.

Here is another way to look at it.

China has increased its national emissions since 2000 by an amount equivalent to about half the total annual U.S. emissions. That means, just to offset Chinese emissions growth, each and every one of us (Americans) would have had, on average, to have reduced our CO2 emissions by 50% during the same period. And this would only to be to offset China’s growth! Give China a few more years (although the global recession will slow things down a bit—temporarily) and China’s emissions growth will have exhausted our (Americans) potential to effect any more offsets—in other words, even it we (Americans) in 2000 had eliminated all our CO2 emissions, China, by the end of this decade, would most likely have completely replaced them through growth of its own. In only 10 short years, our (Americans) tremendous sacrifice would be forever erased by China’s growth.

The bottom line is clearly thus:

The loudest the pleas to limit carbon dioxide emissions should be being made in Chinese (rather than English), for without reigning in China’s emissions growth, America’s impact on future global climate change will be minuscule. So the alarmists should quit pestering us (Americans) about our energy usage until they have made some serious inroads with China. Recent trends show that “we” are not the problem.

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