Economics and politics - comment and analysis

News from the climate change front. And Trump quits Paris

There is good news, unfortunately it is not true 

Stefan Rahmstorf (see here) and Anders Levermann, both from PIK, the Potsdam Research Climate Centre, published an article on a couple of days ago. Levermann is also a professor and the editor of Earth System Dynamics (see here). As they write, following “the landmark” (sic – see below) Paris Climate Agreement, the world’s nations have committed to “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”. Rahmstorf and Leverman hold this goal for feasible, but only if global emissions peak by the year 2020 at the latest (see here).

They present a short discussion on why it is necessary for global emissions to peak. We know why. All sorts of impacts are getting progressively worse – they name sea level rise, global temperature rise, disappearing ice cover, extreme weather events. There will be the danger of crossing critical tipping points (see here). They mention the destabilisation of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet – an outcome that scientists have warned about since the 1970s – the destabilisation of the Greenland Ice Sheet which will eventually raise global sea levels even further, the fate of coral reefs and the slowing down of the Gulf Stream system (see here). This list of real and potential horrors is far from complete, but this is unimportant.

The question is what has to be done against it. What, how and when? As they say, the Paris temperature range can be translated, with some uncertainty, into a budget of CO2 emissions that are still permissible. Based on numbers from the IPCC, the overall budget for the century lies within the range of 150 to 1050 Gt of CO2, based on updated numbers from IPCC (see here).

It is to say, according to the IPCC, and ‘with some uncertainty’, the CO2 budget for the century lies presumably somewhere between a certain figure and another one which is seven times higher.

Anyway, as Rahmstorf and Levermann, write, this range would be crossed in less than four years and is thus already unachievable without the massive application of largely unproven and speculative carbon dioxide removal technologies. Even the CO2 budget corresponding to the mid-point of this uncertainty range, 600 Gt CO2, is equivalent to only 15 years of current emissions (thus unrealistically assuming that CO2 emissions do not rise in the meantime) (see here).

A graph then makes clear that even if we magically peak in 2020, it will be required to reduce emissions to zero within the next twenty years. But how? Rahmstorf and Levermann continue: by assuming a more optimistic budget of 800 Gt this can be stretched to thirty years, but at a significant risk of exceeding 2°C warming (see here).

In other words, there is no answer to this question. It is just absolutely impossible. But Rahmstorf and Levermann, while not mentioning any strategy, do not agree. Their conclusion is worth citing:

“It is still possible therefore to meet the Paris temperature goals (i.e. limiting global temperature rise “well below 2 degrees C”) if emissions peak by 2020 at the latest, and there are signs to show we are moving in that direction as global CO2 emissions have not increased for the past three years. We will need an enormous amount of action and scaled up ambition to harness the current momentum in order to travel down the decarbonisation curve at the necessary pace; the window to do that is still open” (see here).

Unfortunately, nothing of this is true. If it is not true, the more interesting question is why they are writing it. It is not true that global CO2 emissions have not increased for the last three years – this may be the case of energy, but not for other causes of emissions. Nor did the emissions of any other greenhouse gases decrease. Emissions from land use, agriculture, aviation, shipping etc. have not stalled. Increased use of biomass is often calculated as zero-emission, which is nonsensical.

CO2e (equivalent) is already above what was considered the limit for a 2 degrees C rise – the limit was 450 ppm CO2e. We are now over 485 ppm CO2e and the figure is 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. Evidently, one has to deal the total CO2e picture, not emissions that are due to fossil fuels only. As one comment on the article reads:

“If the permafrost thaw caused by fossil fuel emissions is already to release relatively large amounts of CO2, NH4 and NO2, then any reasonable discussion of our global situation 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).


Not that the accounting method of countries to measure their CO2 emissions is correct. This is the main reason why we live in the schizophrenic world in which CO2 emissions from many individual countries decrease while global CO2 emissions rise.

CO2 emissions are accounted incorrectly

To understand what is happening, it is necessary to know what territorial emissions are and what the difference is between production emissions and consumption emissions. Territorial emissions refer to GHGs that occur within a country (e.g. from burning fossil fuels for the generation of electricity, in transport and industrial production, direct emissions from heating in households and businesses and emissions related to agricultural, forestry and waste management activities). These are the current basis of carbon accounting under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Production emissions refer to territorial emissions plus emissions from international aviation and shipping on the basis of bunker fuels. Consumption emissions refer to production emissions minus emissions embedded in export of goods and services, plus emissions embedded in imports of goods and services. Finally, the carbon footprint refers to the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused directly or indirectly by a nation (equivalent to consumption emissions), a business, a product (equivalent to lifecycle emissions) or a person (see for these definitions here).

Countries publish figures on the emissions that they emit for all sectors including changes in carbon sinks (such as forests) and aviation and shipping fuelled from within the country. Dividing the total figure by the population estimate gives the carbon emissions per person. These figures have been showing a falling trend for years. For example, as Stuart Parkinson writes, in the UK carbon emissions per person in 1990 were 14.6t. In 2014, they were 9.1t – a reduction by 38% (see here). This looks impressive: the average carbon emission per person for Europe is ca. 10t, for North America it is over 20t and for China it is now over 8t (see here).

These are production emissions. Consumption emissions basically refer to who is responsible for them. For example, if a machine is made in China, but bought and used in the UK, under the consumption-based accounting system, the UK is responsible for the emissions of manufacture and use, while, under a production-based system, only use would be counted (see here). The consumption-based system – which is the carbon footprint – is more appropriate to use because it is much more logical as well as realistic.

How does the picture of CO2 emissions look when the consumption emissions accounting method is used? According to the UK’s Committee on Climate Change report, the UK markedly increased its net import of energy intensive goods since the 1990s (see here and here). The researchers estimate that in 1992, UK’s emissions would have been 35% higher if all the goods used in the UK would have been manufactured in the UK. By 2010, this figure had increased to 80%. This means that, according to the footprint method, the average contribution to climate change per person increased to 19.5t in 1990 and to 15.5t in 2014. This is much higher than the production-based method: the percentage reduction between 1990 and 2014 is only about half of the official figure.

To make a long story short: The shift of production overseas and the import of goods reduce emissions as measured on a production basis, but not on a consumption basis. And over the last two decades, growth in imported emissions has more than offset reductions in production emissions.


Figure 1: UK carbon footprint per person (carbon emissions and carbon footprint). Source: Stuart Parkinson (see here).

These four small histograms show an incredible problem for humankind: it shows that progress has and is being made and also that it is radically insufficient. In order to reach the goal of keeping average global temperature below 2 degrees C by 2100, the average carbon footprint has to decrease to ca. 3t per person (see here). This means that the majority of European countries – and we are not the biggest polluters – need to cut their carbon footprint by 80%. This task is so truly gargantuan that it is utterly impossible, short of “shutting down” the European economy (as Ivo de Boer, a former head of the UNFCCC said years ago, before the Copenhagen top). There is no single strategy in the world that can achieve this.

Of course, there is no use in staring ourselves blind to a goal which is not achievable anyway. The problem is that the longer we wait, the more difficult it will become to reach any other goal that implies a significant decrease in CO2 emissions. If it looks unachievable today, it will look even more unachievable tomorrow. But Rahmstorf and Levermann ignore all of this.

The accounting method that the countries and the international organisations use to calculate their emissions is flawed. Atmospheric CO2 emissions are rising year after year. It is true that the CO2 emissions of many countries are decreasing. The carbon footprint is also decreasing in many countries. This is all good news. The only problem is the one that shows up in Parkinson’s graph: the carbon footprint offsets the carbon emissions (compare the emissions of 1990 with the footprint in 2014) (see here).

Rising emissions

The truth of the matter is that global CO2 emissions have hit record levels in 2017. It stands currently at 412 ppm. The average of May 2017 is 410ppm at MOA. CO2e is 485 ppm and rising (see also here and here and here). We have already locked in considerably more warming than the Paris Agreement targets. Power plants, airplanes, shipping, trucking, cement and steel production, cars – all are committed to continued rates of fossil fuel combustion over the next decade. Dematerialisation and miniaturisation do not work. Nuclear fusion does not work. Geo-engineering does not work or/and it is dangerous and requires a political agreement which will be very hard or impossible to negotiate. Either way, it will be too late. Carbon markets – the golden calf of the neoclassical economists – do not work (see the discussion about territorial and consumption emissions and the carbon footprint above). The European Trading System, brought to you by the cement, steel and other lobbies (see here) is a complete disaster. In this article, Steffen Boehm, an internationally recognised expert on carbon markets, gives ten reasons why carbon markets will never bring about radical emissions reductions (a couple of others can be found – most importantly, the earth’s response to warming).

But what do Rahmstorf and Levermann care? In their graph, permafrost melting only starts becoming a problem at ca. +5 degrees C. This is ridiculous. Permafrost melting is already a problem, right now and it is getting worse month after month. The permafrost feedback does not only mean that the earth itself releases CO2 and methane, but also that the capacity of the earth system to absorb atmospheric CO2 decreases.

The estimate is that about 50% of total global fossil fuel emissions over the past 100 years have been absorbed by the 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 (to repeat myself: not that there is a 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 (and this is an enormous if) meets their 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. Note that, according to several scientists, a 3.5 degrees C is the extinction horizon.

It has to be difficult to get so much misleading information in a mere couple of pages. Rahmstorf and Levermann say that the WAIS (the West Antarctic Ice Sheet) has already been destabilised, and so the world is committed to at least 3 meters of global sea-level rise “in coming centuries.” But the WAIS is not the only flashpoint. What is the time horizon when all melting is factored in?

Why would, according to Rahmstorf and Levermann, CO2 emissions decrease? For CO2 emissions to fall, the use of fossil fuels has to decrease – this means major changes in manufacturing, agriculture, transport and energy efficiency. It means changing and re-scaling the macroeconomic architecture. It does not square with any reasonable projections of oil, natural gas and coal production. For example, the US EIA estimated future consumption of liquids and natural gas give annual rates of increase of 1.1 and 1.9 percent through 2040 and 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.


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%. This is what the Paris Agreement, this landmark to save the human race and the planet, is worth. Where does this money go to? 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 just wrote to Trump in an open letter, asking him to not quit the Paris Agreement. They presumably forgot to mention “saving the human race and the planet.”


Picture 2: American corporations asking Trump not to quit Paris (Source: Google Images).

Well, Trump did it and it is inherently stupid and regressive. But the Paris Agreement is also stupid and regressive. If that is all that can happen, we are doomed. It is 2017 now, CO2 and other GHGs are rising, temperatures are rising, new feedbacks and potential horrors are being discovered almost every day.

The difference between an agreement and a treaty is that an agreement is a lofty piece of useless paper, while a treaty is a legally binding contract between parties: do whatever is stipulated or face sanctions. The emissions mitigation commitments of the Paris Agreement are nonbinding. Country commitments are entirely voluntary, based on national circumstances. Each country decides on its own what it intends to do. The “intent” of the agreement was to increase collective ambition over time through review — the so-called “ratchet” mechanism. In 2018, there will be a stocktaking exercise to see how country actions are unfolding. That assessment was intended to help strengthen commitments in 2020, with the whole exercise repeated every five years thereafter. The idea was to bring a virtuous pressure of mutual responsibility and expectation.

It was feasible to negotiate a major international agreement like COP21 – ‘this historical milestone that will safeguard the future of humanity’ etc. – to fight climate change that 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 this famous agreement (see here). As I said, 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.

Different than many commentators wrote after Trump quit Paris quasi immediate withdrawal is possible. Under the Paris rules, the United States cannot withdraw until November 2020. This is so because a country cannot announce its formal withdrawal until three years after the agreement entered into force. This date depended on the number of ratifications of the Agreement. A certain percentage was necessary for the Agreement to become effective. Even then, it takes one year from the date of notification for withdrawal to take effect. Certainly, but the US, or any other country, can drop out anyway. A country can signal its intent to withdraw from the 1992 parent U.N. Framework Convention on climate change. In that case, it can be out of the Paris Agreement and the UNFCCC within a year.

I cannot reproduce all the critique, but to summarise Paris:

There is no plan.

There are no real, efficient, strategies.

Every country sets its own goals.

There are no sanctions.

Trade is explicitly outside the agreement (this has been the case since Rio).

The goals that have been set cannot be reached.

Some essential goals have been given up on.

The accountancy of climate change is wrong.

There is ample evidence that the IPCC underestimates climate change.

That is Paris for you. Humankind and every living creature on this planet deserves better than this useless piece of empty political doubletalk. But who will tell you? The deniers won’t, the corporations won’t, the politicians won’t and it certainly seems like you can’t count on the mainstream experts for it either.