Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

2010: Largest Increase in CO2 Emissions On Record -> Actions To Date Insufficient


I wanted to share just a few brief words on an article I saw in the Denver Post (from the AP) today: Greenhouse gas levels rise. Somewhat surprisingly, a reference to the article appeared on the top of the front page of the print edition of the paper. The story, at the back on 11A, was a little too filled with various quotes from experts in the field for my taste, with no real context for readers to grasp why the news is so important.

This graph encapsulates the importance of this news item:

What this graph shows is the observations of emissions (as calculated by the IEA) represented by the black curve and 5 of the 6 emissions scenarios used by the IPCC AR4 in colored lines. The SRES begin in 2000, which was the starting year used for future simulations in the AR4. You can clearly see the effects of the partial collapse of the global economy in 2009 emissions: they went from higher than the worst-case scenario to the middle of the pack.

In 2010, however, emissions jumped back up to the top of the pack, almost as if 2009 never even happened. I would be willing to bet the 2011 numbers will demonstrate a further increase.

The simplicity of this graph should in no way distract from the deep problems underlying the data: we continue to emit more and more greenhouse gases. As a result, we are locking in more and more future warming and ensuring a cascade of resultant effects that we can’t envision today. In contrast to some of my earlier posts, I want to make sure I don’t convey that I think those effects will be apocalyptic because I don’t think they will be.

There will be changes forced on us and on ecosystems worldwide as a result of these emissions. But what I want to start spending more time on are the solutions to the grand challenges we’re facing instead of just the depths of those challenges themselves.

In short, it is clear that actions taken to date with respect to emissions clearly have been unsatisfactory. That is because the approach to developing policies that could affect emissions have been woefully inadequate. I have solidified my opinion that the IPCC is not the best approach to dealing with the adaptation or mitigation strategies. Neither do I think that the Conference on Parties, which is set to meet in a handful of weeks to discuss roles and responsibilities for developed and developing countries, is suitable for the task. I’m not sure what the best approach is, but neither of these two primary tacks have proven themselves capable of dealing with the problem to date.


6 thoughts on “2010: Largest Increase in CO2 Emissions On Record -> Actions To Date Insufficient

  1. With all due respect, it matters not what you or anyone thinks on this subject: Wishful thinking will not change anything.

    If you have been following my blog for the last week or so, you will know I have been reading Storms of my Grandchildren by James Hansen. In previous weeks, I had been defending the legitimacy of climate models so, imagine my surprise when I found out that Hansen prefers to rely on palaeoclimatology to predict what will now happen?

    Apocalyptic means different things to different people but Hanson’s prediction that anything other than drastic cutbacks in CO2 emissions over the next 5 years will “lock-in” sea level change of several metres per century for several centuries (i.e. analogous to Earth coming out of the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago) sounds pretty apocalyptic to me.

    • I think climate models are legitimate at demonstrating potential outcomes, as long as they’re taken with a grain of salt. They’re never going to be perfect and we can’t rely exclusively on their projections. I think part of the reason Hansen prefers paleoclimate data is they’re observations of what conditions might look like again if we continue our emissions. Numerical models miss some rather large features, but I don’t consider that to be a fatal flaw and I don’t think Hansen does either.

      I certainly agree that apocalyptic can mean different things. If sea level rise of 1 meter were to occur a short time period, say one decade or so, I would consider that to be closer to apocalyptic. We have the capability to adapt to multi-meter sea level rise if it occurs over several centuries. Will conditions be different than they are today? Undoubtedly. Will conditions be harder to live in than they are today? That’s likely. But people today live in harsh conditions. Based on that, I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect people to be able to live in harsh conditions 100 years from now.

    • As Hansen points out, that future is closer to being guaranteed every year we continue to increase our emissions. Part of what I’ve pieced together this fall is that there is zero chance that emissions will be drastically cut in the next five years. The scale of the emissions problem is simply too vast to expect otherwise. We had 40 years to react to what was known would happen and we chose not to do it. I’m arguing that we accept that reality, move to reduce our emissions as much as we can as soon as we can so that the future effects are minimized.

      In short, mitigation should be our primary focus. Adaptation should not be discounted. In my opinion, we still have the luxury of time to plan and implement adaptation strategies. We shouldn’t squander that time like we have the mitigation time was squandered.

    • I appreciate your viewpoint, Martin.
      I am curious what you mean by, “Wishful thinking will not change anything”. Could you elaborate on that?

      • You said, “I want to make sure I don’t convey that I think those effects will be apocalyptic because I don’t think they will be“… This sounded to me like wishful thinking because Hansen’s description of what will happen (because we have failed to act in good time – a point you also make above), is genuinely apocalyptic…

        If you have not read his book, you really should. (Failing that, read the output of my blog since How does James Hansen sleep at night?). To summarise, we humans were nearly wiped-out duting the last ice age (70k yrs ago) and agriculture and modernity only became possible when sea level stabilised (7k yrs ago). If it starts rising at 4-5 metres per century for several centuries (as it did 14k yrs ago) due to significant melting of ice caps, the unremitting sequence of destruction, disorder and death that it will cause make 2011 seem like a tea party.

        I believe we are at that tipping point were sea level rise will now begin to accelerate: Once ice caps start to melt (as they are now doing) it is hard to see how humanity can act in time to stop it (because of the inertia in the sytem) unless we can rapidly extract CO2 from the atmosphere using artificial trees (only problem there being that governments don’t really seem to see the urgency of the problem).

        It may take several decades to get to metres/century rates of sea level rise but, once it does, modern civilisation (at least for at several hundred million people) will be history.

  2. Pingback: CO2 Emissions Continue to Track At Top of IPCC Range « Weatherdem’s Weblog

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