Some encouraging trend lines on global warming, but danger zone remains near

REUTERS/Ina Fassbender
Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel consumption stayed flat in 2014 even as the global economy grew by 3 percent.

In what will surely rank among 2015’s most significant reports on the pace of global warming, the International Energy Agency on Monday laid out several positive trend lines and one grim counterpoint as it looked to the future:

  • Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel consumption stayed flat in 2014 even as the global economy grew by 3 percent, “the first time in at least 40 years that such an outcome has occurred outside economic crisis.”
  • The “energy intensity” of the global economy fell by 2.3 percent last year, more than double the average yearly decline of the past decade.
  • Renewable energy sources accounted for nearly half of all new generating capacity added in 2014, with China joining the U.S., Japan and Germany among the leading developers; renewables are  approaching coal’s share of world power production.
  • With projected economic growth of 88 percent between 2013 and 2030, emissions from energy use may grow just 8 percent if emitting nations hold to their newest control policies.

Taken together, says the IEA, these amount to strong signs that strong economic growth is beginning to “decouple” from greenhouse gas emissions at long last.

But is it enough to ward off catastrophe? Probably not.

To define the boundary of the climate danger zone, IEA uses the widely accepted standard of a 2 degree Celsius increase in global average temperature (3.6 degree Fahrenheit), and its forecasts project the date at which the world faces a 50 percent chance of crossing that line.

Based on current national policies, the IEA predicts that the 2 degree mark will be reached sometime in 2040. And here’s the most sobering part:

That’s a mere eight months later than the 2 degree threshhold might arrive without the new, more aggressive pledges announced this spring by the United States and other nations that account for about one-third of greenhouse gas outputs worldwide.

Prepping for Paris talks

The IEA report is the latest in its annual World Energy Outlook series, and much of its discussion is geared to the COP21 gathering of nations in Paris this December as part of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

That session will attempt to reach a new global accord on emissions reductions beyond 2020, when the current goals expire, and in preparation for the talks each participating country has been asked to prepare a detailed reduction plan known as an INDC (for Intended Nationally Determined Contribution).

The new report forecasts the impact of INDCs that have been prepared to date; for countries that have yet so submit an INDC, including China as one notable example, the IEA included the most recent set of emissions goals available.

The United States has pledged that its total emissions in 2025 will be 26 to 28 percent lower than they were in 2005, which is the largest absolute reduction offered by any nation that has prepared an INDC.

And yet, according to the Washington Post’s Chris Mooney, whose analysis of the IEA report was the best single treatment I’ve seen, Americans would still remain among the world’s largest emitters on a per-capita basis:

With a population of 30 million more people, energy demand in the U.S. would nonetheless not increase much by 2025 — even as renewables grow to exceed 20 percent of total electricity generation (still slightly behind a much weakened coal sector, at 23 percent). The biggest emissions gains, though, would actually come from ever-improving vehicle fuel economy standards.

The U.S. is thus typical of the overall IEA picture — a country that will do a great deal, but not necessarily enough. The agency therefore calls for stronger steps to cut emissions — including a global peak in energy emissions by 2020, and a process to check where nations are on their goals every five years. …

The IEA says the world can peak emissions by 2020 by pursuing five policies simultaneously: ramping up renewables, ramping down coal use, investing heavily in energy efficiency, cutting fossil fuel subsidies, and quickly capping emissions of the hard-hitting but short-lived climate pollutant methane.

Good coverage elsewhere

Following are excerpts from other good coverage of the IEA report:

  • From the UK Guardian’s Fiona Harvey, on the problem of newly built but old-technology coal plants being built in poorer countries, where they’re likely to operate for 50 years or more:

Old designs of coal plants waste much more energy and produce far more carbon per unit of electricity than more modern technology. But they are cheaper to build and so are often preferred in rapidly emerging economies, particularly in south Asia.

At present, among Asia’s most prominent economies, at least half of all new power plants use the inefficient old technologies. If modern designs were used instead, the savings in emissions would be equal to the savings from the European Union’s new pledge to cut emissions by 40% by 2030, according to the IEA.

The extra cost would be more than made up for in greater energy produced for the same amount of fuel. “Coal-fired power plants are our biggest challenge,” said [IEA director Fatih] Birol. “So this is the first thing we have to implement.”

Tax breaks, subsidized fuel prices and other government support amount to an incentive to pollute worth $115 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, the [IEA] said Monday. … That compares with an average $7 cost to buy emission permits in carbon markets, according to the Paris-based group.

In North America, carbon prices and subsidies each cover about 4 percent of emissions, the agency said. The subsidies amount to $36 a ton on average, while the carbon price is $9 a ton. Latin American subsidies are $208 a ton, compared with $173 a ton in the Middle East, $168 in Africa, $104 in India and $29 in China, the IEA said.

The report states that nuclear power is the second-biggest source of low-carbon electricity, adding that in the last few years almost half of all new reactor units have been built in countries with de-regulated electricity markets or with state-owned companies building, operating and owing them.

China had 28 gigawatts of new nuclear power capacity under construction at the end of last year and could have more nuclear capacity than the current global leader, the USA, by 2030, according to the report.

(However, the Wall Street Journal opined that nuclear’s future worldwide remains clouded by continuing concern over the reactor meltdown’s at Japan’s Fukushima power station.)

Wind, solar and other types of renewable power will overtake coal to become the world’s top source of electricity in just 15 years if the pledges countries are making for a global climate change deal this year are met.

The striking finding by the International Energy Agency shows renewable power could soar from just over a fifth of global electricity generation today to nearly a third by 2030 — a bigger share than either coal, gas or nuclear plants.

This shows today’s energy companies are making a “major fatal error” if they assume climate action is not going to affect their businesses, Fatih Birol, the IEA chief economist, said.

“That would be like assuming interest rates will stay the same for the next 25 years,” he told the FT in an interview. “It’s the same type of short-sightedness.”

  • And on that methane problem, again from the Guardian’s Fiona Harvey, who noted that none of the IEA’s recommendations rely on new technologies, but only on wider or smarter use of existing methods:

Oil and gas companies must also take action to eliminate the release of methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as powerful as carbon dioxide, which is set free in operations such as fracking.

Most companies fail to do this, even though it is technically possible and costs on average only 1 percent more than extraction without the right technology.

Birol said that if energy companies – several of which recently pledged to tackle global warming through a carbon price – were serious about climate change, they would take this action urgently.

  • And, finally, back to the Washington Post’s Chris Mooney, for a thoughtful piece last month explaining that while a 2 degree C temperature rise may be the most widely accepted margin of safety these days, plenty of opinion holds that it’s too high – and that 1.5 degrees has a stronger precautionary argument to be made in its favor.

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 06/16/2015 - 09:01 am.

    I see where all these changes are great but not enough to “ward off catastrophe”. The new deadline is now 2040 for the 2 degree Celsius change that will destroy the earth and all of its creatures. In the mid 1990’s I heard the same things about the yr 2015, I’m still here and last I looked Long Island is not under water. Knowing the catastrophe lies ahead no matter what we do, I’m going to burn my brush pile from clearing a 1/2 acre to make a food plot for the deer that won’t be here in 25 yrs. So depressed I’m going to have a drink while I burn it.

    • Submitted by David Venne on 06/16/2015 - 11:31 am.

      When I was teaching meteorology to non-science majors some of them came to class initiallly understanding AGW in terms that you used, “destroy the earth and all of its creatures.” I tried to explain to them that such a scenario is not predicted and not something they need to concern themselves about. While AGW may have serious economic impact, Doomsday is not in the cards — or the computer models.

      I’m curious, what is the mid 1990’s source that suggested that by 2015 we would have seen a 2 degree C rise and a rise in sea level sufficient to cover Long Island? I looked at the IPCC 1995 assessment and it suggests nothing of the sort.

  2. Submitted by Scot Wilcoxon on 06/16/2015 - 10:23 am.

    What warming?

    We’ve warmed one degree since the Little Ice Age. Has the planet reached the normal temperature from before the Little Ice Age? You’re afraid of warming two degrees, but only claim that’s not natural warming because some computer simulations say it’s not natural. Those computers don’t know what clouds do, so they can’t confirm anything.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/16/2015 - 11:53 am.

    One again we come to the comments decrying the foolishness about worrying about a couple degree temperature rise.

    Sorry folks, but you miss the point that at the last time it was 1 or 2 or 5 or 10 degrees warmer than it is, we certainly did not have 7 billion people (relatively immobile–not nomads to move with the livable weather) depending on industrial scale farming in relatively few green belts in the world–highly dependent upon predictable rain or adequate groundwater to grow reliable food.

    And get it straight–the world will not be destroyed, it will survive just fine–it’s just that the supportable number of humans will be smaller by an order of magnitude or so, along with many of the other species we are familiar with.

    • Submitted by DENNIS SCHMINKE on 06/16/2015 - 03:24 pm.

      Relax

      Tell me what the right temperature is. For all you know, it may in fact be the case that warmer temps and higher CO2 levels–if they happen (and probably won’t) may well result in INCREASED food production rather than decrease it. The science is just not good enough to predict at that level of specificity.

      CO2 is plant food, of course. Higher temps may result in more clouds–more moisture–more rain (rain makes grain, as the farmer say)–and who knows…possibly higher net reflectivity with temps reaching a new (different but tolerable) equilibrium. Higher temps and more rain may also INCREASE the world net-inventory of arable land.

      You just don’t know. No one does. Anyone who says the DO has an (expensive) agenda.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/16/2015 - 04:10 pm.

        Which is a more defensible position–trying to preserve what is or flying off into the unknown and saying “it’ll all work out?”

        You do realize that the earth has spent a far,far greater percentage of time in era’s that were entirely hostile to the thriving of humans? Even more so with respect to 7 billion humans.

        Yes, adaptions can be made and can occur, but most system evolve over thousands to millions of years, not in a hundred or so.

        How many years do you think that it would take to get the tundra into prime corn or wheat growing territory? Who needs that black dirt anyway? Now what to do about the pesky sunlight issue, where daylight hours and energy received from the sun are entirely different in northern Canada than in Iowa, regardless of temperature?

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/16/2015 - 09:28 pm.

        by the way…

        Have you ever noticed that there is not a lot of high-production agriculture in sub-tropical or tropical regions?

        Lots of warmth, consistent sun, plenty of rain and humidity.

        But not much agriculture.

        Time for you to find out why.

  4. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 06/16/2015 - 02:49 pm.

    Can anybody identify a doom and gloom proclamation from the past that has turned out to be true? These far-fetched tragedy (i.e. the ice age theory from the 1970’s) stories invariably come up every few decades or so, but never come to being. Now that it has been cooling for the last ten years, it’s really a stretch to think mankind and its’ progress is placing undue stress on the earth.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/16/2015 - 03:26 pm.

      Over 99% of all species that have ever lived on the earth are now extinct.

      30 to 50% of all currently existing species will be gone by mid-century.

      The current rate of extinctions is at 1000 to 10000 times the normal rate.

      Doomy and gloomy enough for you?

      And, you might want to get some real science input into your belief of cooling over the past 10 years.

    • Submitted by David Venne on 06/16/2015 - 06:33 pm.

      Living in the past

      The idea that scientists thought an ice age was imminent in the 1970s is a myth that’s comfortable to embrace, but it wasn’t the case. Even when the possible resumption of a glacial period was making the rounds in the media most scientists were predicting warming. Please don’t confuse what appeared in the popular press with the science that was underway.

      I wish it was true that the earth has been cooling for the last ten years. I wish that AGW was something that wasn’t going to happen. Right now the data point to those wishes being exercises in self-delusion.

      It’s worth pointing out again that the central issue is one of time scales. Humanity has enjoyed a long, relatively uneventful interglacial period. Our “way of operating” has adapted to the climate being what it is. When climate changes we adapt to it; a slow change is easy for our economies to handle. A rapid change, not so much. That’s the problem other species are facing, too.

      As for your request to identify a doom and gloom proclamation, think about what you’re asking. Had there been one that was truly “doom and gloom”–which AGW is not– that had come to pass we wouldn’t be here to answer you.

  5. Submitted by DENNIS SCHMINKE on 06/16/2015 - 05:11 pm.

    Markets

    Here is the bottom line:

    Free markets will do more to reduce carbon emissions than legislation, treaties, or promises to cut. History has shown this (and I mean the past 50-100 years–when it was not even a topic of conversation). Free markets and capitalism will ALWAYS relentlessly drive for lower cost and greater efficiency.

    Fossil fuels are, by definition, dwindling resources. They are commodities, so there will be ups and downs in prices, but in the end, scarcity will drive prices higher and switching to alternative sources (some ‘renewable’, no doubt).

    The real discussion we are having is “Do we want (need?) to drive this faster by artificially inflating prices. Note it will ALL likely be burned sooner or later, and that there ARE downsides (as noted on the article) to to the ‘sooner is better’ approach. These happen in the form of slower economic growth, and thus, increased poverty, inability to cope with the effects of ‘climate change’ (if it ever really happens), and MORE (not less) CO2 emissions in the third world nations.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/16/2015 - 06:55 pm.

      It was cheap and easy for Superior Plating to dump their hazardous waste onto the ground for decades.

      A very profitable business model, not having to worry about those coming later to the party. The clean-up costs are all paid by others.

      The same way with the fossil fuel industry.

      Business really doesn’t pay the costs but reaps a mighty profit. Consumers save money but they won’t pay the real costs.

    • Submitted by Steve Vigoren on 06/16/2015 - 10:24 pm.

      Amazing!

      Sounds like a page right out of the ALEC handbook. “We don’t want to pollute the earth into a catastrophic situation, but we have no choice! It is our only way out! Do it for the poor, if for no one else!”

  6. Submitted by rolf westgard on 06/16/2015 - 07:56 pm.

    Paris; another futile climate conference with good INTENTIONS

    Note the specific pledges designed for the latest climate boondoggle conference in Paris = Intended Nationally Determined Contribution(INDC). Includes the meaningless word INTENDED.
    Paris will be the same as the earlier meetings in Copenhagen, Rio, New York, Cancun, etc. lots of fossil fuels burned to get the delegates to and from with no result. Developing countries led by China and India will demand huge sums(currently $100 million/yr) from the developed world for putting all those GHGs in the atmosphere. I am sure that Congress will line up to send big bucks to China.

    • Submitted by rolf westgard on 06/17/2015 - 10:24 am.

      Typo

      The developing country demand is $100 Billion/yr not million.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/17/2015 - 12:44 pm.

        Crippling demand….0.00125

        Crippling demand….

        0.00125 of the world GDP for the costs associated with producing the world’s goods in the cheapest possible manner.

        Simply intolerable!

        Something must be done!

  7. Submitted by rolf westgard on 06/17/2015 - 10:31 am.

    Confusing capacity and production

    Article states, “renewables are approaching coal’s share of world power production.” It is capacity where renewables approach fossil fuels, not actual production. The low efficiency and capacity factor of wind and solar keep them at a single digit percent of electric power supply.
    We need more output from wind and solar, but we need to be realistic in our assessments.

  8. Submitted by Steve Vigoren on 06/17/2015 - 01:56 pm.

    India, for one

    has changed their focus with the election last year of Narendra Modi. They will install 170 GigaWatts of wind, solar and biomass by 2022, foregoing some planned coal burners. They intend for every household to have a solar panel by 2019, so the populace will understand the value and importance of clean energy. It is great for the environment and the economy.

    And to think, Rolf, just two years ago in this forum, you stated, “The Koch Brothers have nothing to fear from solar power.” Yet they must be a little apprehensive, since then they have funded an all out war against solar, instructing our Republican state legislators to put their fingers in the leaking dike to try and stop solar every way they can. ALEC state chairman Pat Garofalo, with the R majority in the House, made some inroads to penalize solar with electrical co-ops this year, and has vowed to fight the spread of solar every year in the legislature. We will see how that goes for him, as the public becomes ever more aware of the environmental and economic value of solar.

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