Economics and politics - comment and analysis

A record surge in atmospheric CO2. Emissions rise faster than ever

Yesterday (30/10), both the BBC and the Guardian posted an article proving the state of the world is atrocious (see here and here). According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), concentrations of atmospheric CO2 surged to a record high in 2016. What is more, the pace with which this process is taking place is accelerating. The year 2016 saw average concentrations of CO2 hit 403.3 ppm, up from 400 ppm in 2015. This is the largest increase the WMO watch programme has ever witnessed. Before 2016, the largest increase – 2.7 ppm – occurred in 1997-1998 when an El Niño was active (every El Niño impacts the amount of carbon in the atmosphere by causing droughts that limit the uptake of CO2 by plants and trees). Now the figure is 3.3ppm. It is also 50% higher than the average of the last 10 years, which is extreme. The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was three to five million years ago, in the mid-Pliocene Epoch.

While emissions from human sources have slowed down somewhat in the last couple of years, the cumulative total of atmospheric CO2 continues to spike. Since 1990 alone, there has been a 40% increase in total radiative forcing. The rise in CO2 and CO2e (equivalent) is due the Earth’s response to human warming. This means that, at one unknown point, climate change will be out of our hands: total emissions will continue to increase even if we decrease CO2 emissions from human sources (not that we significantly succeed in this or that there is a plan for achieving it). The problem is not only that human activity creates climate change, but that climate change destroys sinks, such as forests, that it warms oceans and seas and destroys the permafrost. This explains the spike of methane levels over the last 10 years.

Incredibly, there is still doubt. As professor Nisbet from Royal Halloway says:

“The rapid increase in methane since 2007, especially in 2014, 2015, and 2016 (…) was not expected in the Paris agreement. Methane growth is strongest in the tropics and sub-tropics. The carbon isotopes in the methane show that growth is not being driven by fossil fuels. We do not understand why methane is rising. It may be a climate change feedback. It is very worrying” (see here).

And Erik Solhein, the head of UN Environment added that “The numbers don’t lie. We are still emitting far too much and this needs to be reversed” (see here).

The numbers do not lie, but one has to use the right ones. The global CO2 measure tells far from the whole story. Atmospheric levels of gasses like methane, nitrous oxide, and a host of less common industrial chemicals are also all on the rise in the Earth’s atmosphere due to human emissions. According to research by the Advanced Global Atmosphere Gases Center at MIT, the total heat forcing equal to CO2 (this is the CO2 equivalent measure which adds all the other gases) was about 478 ppm during the spring of 2013 – almost two years before the Paris Agreement was signed (December 2015) (see here and here). The Paris Agreement does not contain the word “methane” (see here for the text).

Needless to say, in 2013, the situation – ca. 480 ppm CO2e  – was already nothing short of fearsome. The last time the world saw such a measure of comparable atmospheric greenhouse gas heat forcing was during the Miocene around 15-20 million years ago. At that time, global temperatures were 3-4 C warmer. Today, CO2e stands at ca. 492 ppm. It is impossible that the IPCC was unaware of it. For one, Natalia Sakhova and her colleagues have been publishing papers on methane venting into the atmosphere from sediments of the East Siberian Ice Arctic Shelf since the 1990s (see here). That tropical forests could transform from a sink to a source due to rising temperatures has also been documented in the literature since the 1990s (see for example here). According to an OECD study of 2011, GHG could reach 685 ppm of CO2e by 2050 (see here). In 2013, Michael Mann wrote that we will likely lock in a 2 C short term warming this century and a probable 4 C warming long-term. According to Mann in 2013, if the current, high-velocity pace of emission continues, we will likely hit 2C warming by 2036, setting off extraordinary, severe and irreversible global changes over a very short period. Since then, nothing has happened to change this gloomy picture.

It is absolutely necessary to understand the problem of the Earth’s response to human induced climate change. Natural carbon sinks on land and ocean buffer us from the full impact of carbon emissions. But we cannot assume this will continue indefinitely. The warmer the world becomes, the more difficult it will become to prevent further warming: even less emissions can lead to proportionally larger impacts. Natural carbon sinks become less effective and even become sources.

This is happening right now. The Earth’s tropical forests are now so degraded that they are emitting more carbon than all of the traffic in the United States (see here). A healthy forest sequesters carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, whereas forests that are degraded by drought, wildfires and deforestation release previously sequestered carbon. In short, land ecosystems, mainly forests, have been mitigating part of the fossil fuel problem – they sucked CO2 out of the atmosphere, about 25% of our fossil fuel emissions. Not any longer. Another study showed that warming soils are now releasing much more carbon into the atmosphere than previously thought. This means another disastrous feedback loop exists that will trigger giant carbon releases in a cycle that will be (practically) impossible to stop (see here).

It is true that emissions from energy decreased in the last three years. Emissions from land use, agriculture, aviation and shipping have not stalled. Increased use of biomass is still often calculated as zero-emission, which is nonsensical. CO2e is now already above what was considered the limit for a 2 degrees C rise – this limit was 450 ppm CO2e. We are now over 490 ppm CO2e and the concentrations are rising. It is not possible otherwise, also because the earth itself contributes to the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, mainly because of increasing emissions of CO2 and methane from wetlands, permafrost areas and sea beds. The IPCC, in its wisdom, does (or did) not count these contributions and so they do (or did) not exist. The world will pay a heavy prize for this ostrich policy.

The permafrost thaw caused by fossil fuel emissions already releases relatively large amounts of CO2, NH4 and NO2. Any reasonable discussion of our global situation therefore has to stop limiting the discussion to fossil fuel CO2 emissions and start evaluating the true global situation with regard to the planetary carbon cycle and the global warming of all the greenhouse gases (see here).

The estimate is that about 50% of total global fossil fuel emissions over the past 100 years have been absorbed by land and oceans. If the sinks are exhausted or overwhelmed by permafrost or shallow marine sediment outgassing, it is possible that, in the worst case, a 50% reduction in the use of fossil fuels (again: not that there is a viable strategy to achieve this) would have no effect on the growth rate of atmospheric CO2 (see here).

It can be realistically expected that, IF every country meets its self-determined emissions goals, global temperature will increase by 3.7 degrees C at 2100 – and that is being optimistic (see here for the Friedrich et al. paper). According to Friedrich et al. (see my article on this here and here for Friedrich et al.) a rise of 4.8 and 7.4 degrees can be in the making by 2100.

For CO2 emissions to fall, the use of fossil fuels has to decrease and brought to zero. This can only happen if they become so expensive that any other source is cheaper. It also means major changes in manufacturing, agriculture, transport and energy efficiency. It means changing and re-scaling the macroeconomic architecture (see here). We all know this, but it does not square with any reasonable projections of oil, natural gas and coal production. For example, the American EIA estimated future consumption of liquids and natural gas give annual rates of increase of 1.1 and 1.9 percent through 2040. Coal production also increases, albeit more slowly at 0.6 percent per year (see here). The idea that in such a world emissions will drop is magical thinking. The idea that climate change can be addressed in a technological way, leaving existing power relations intact is magical thinking – not only a myth, but a pertinent lie.

What is actually the “effort” that the “landmark” Paris Agreement expects countries to make? In 2015, the US budget was $3.800 billion. In 2016, the Department of Energy (DoE) budget request for all of energy efficiency, renewable energy and nuclear energy was $4 billion. This is a mere 0.1%. Where does most of this money end up? It goes to big multinationals in order to strengthen “competitiveness,” “create jobs” and “markets and growth” and to “reduce business risks,” as 360 big corporations wrote to Trump in an open letter, asking him to not quit the Paris Agreement.

Trump quit Paris and it is inherently stupid and regressive. But the Paris Agreement is also regressive (see also here). At the end of 2017, CO2 and other GHGs are rising, they are rising faster than ever, temperatures are rising, new feedbacks and potential horrors are being discovered almost every day. As I wrote before, ‘this historical milestone that will safeguard the future of humanity’ (Cameron) contains no reference to  “coal,” “oil,” “fracking,” “shale oil,” “fossil fuel” or “carbon dioxide.” The words “zero,” “ban,” “prohibit” or “stop” do not occur in it (see here). The word “adaptation” occurs 85 times, although the responsibility to adapt is nowhere mentioned. Liability and compensation are explicitly excluded. There is no action plan. The proposed emission cuts by the nations are voluntary. There is no enforceable compliance mechanism.

Meanwhile, warming atmospheric temperatures coupled with warmer ocean waters have combined to cause Antarctic sea ice to shrink by two millions kilometres in just the last three years (see here). At the other pole, recently released data showed that the Arctic ice cap melted down to hundreds of thousands of square miles below its average this past summer. The ice minimum for this year was 610.000 square miles below the 1981-2010 average, in addition to its being the eighth-lowest year in the 38-year satellite record (to compare: Germany’s surface is 137.983.6 square miles) (see here).

Some time ago, I would have ended this article by writing that ‘if the world’s nations are serious about addressing climate change, the rise in CO2 concentrations needs to cease. The sinks need to balance the sources. If the sinks degrade and become a source, the game is up.’ But I do not believe that the world’s nations are serious about addressing global climate change. There is nothing concrete that points in that direction. And so the problem becomes unsolvable.