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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Why CO2 emissions will not fall before 2050

Do the milkshake by imchaudhry photography from flickr (CC-NC-ND)
In my previous posts I explained why emissions are unlikely to fall below current levels before 2050, and why due to peak heating occurring long after peak emissions we do have a very long term problem. Conclusion being - geoengineering is pretty much inevitable.

In this post I'd like to talk about two things - what the world will look like in 2050, and the Climategate.

First, the Climategate. As shown by the leak, scientists from East Anglia University engaged in some highly unethical practice, such as knowingly fudging data to support their thesis, violating FOIA and hiding data to the point of deleting it to avoid release, and organized bullying campaigns against scientists with the opposite views. This makes them bad persons, and if God existed, they'd suffer in Purgatory for it / or got shitty reincarnation in the next life / or something like that. Fortunately for them there is no God, so they will get off scot-free with it.

But this behaviour, while highly unethical, doesn't really seem to change the main conclusion of IPCC reports that anthropogenic releases of greenhouse gases have caused significant warming, and are likely to cause a lot more in the future.

The only consequences for climate predictions I can think of is that it might damage people's opinion of credibility of climate change science disproportionally to the breach of proper scientific practice (which did occur, but were fairly minor), thus reducing political will to act on climate change, and increasing the problem. But then, I doubt the damage will be that big.

Now to the main subject - world in 2050. There's no question that we'll stop emitting ever increasing amounts of greenhouse gases at some point. We already have at least four ways to entirely solve the problem even without any significant technological breakthroughs: nuclear, solar thermal, solar photovoltaic, and wind. But the question of when is a big one, and I doubt it will happen soon.

As I wrote in previous blog posts, in 2050 population will be around 9-10 billion, per capita GDP will be around current EU levels, and so will per capita energy use. But energy use and carbon emissions are not that closely connected - there are gains to be made in efficiency, both nuclear and renewables emit little in terms of greenhouse gases, so that doesn't directly imply much about per capita CO2 emissions (nor emissions of other greenhouse gases).

Let's make a simple table - what would have to change for 2050's CO2 emissions to be equal to 2009's CO2 emissions. For simplicity let's assume every country's per capita emissions will be the same for now. If some countries don't take their share of the burden, others will have to.

CountryPopulation (mln)CO2 emissions (mln ton)CO2 emissions per capita (ton/person)
China1334 [19.6%]1462 [15.7%]+9.6%6103 [21.5%]4458 [15.7%]-27.0%4.573.05-33.3%
USA308 [4.5%]397 [4.3%]+28.9%5752 [20.2%]1210 [4.3%]-79.0%18.683.05-83.7%
EU-27499 [7.3%]424 [4.5%]-15.0%3914 [13.8%]1293 [4.5%]-67.0%7.843.05-61.1%
Russia141 [2.1%]104 [1.1%]-26.2%1564 [5.5%]317 [1.1%]-79.7%11.093.05-72.5%
India1173 [17.3%]1572 [16.9%]+34.0%1510 [5.3%]4794 [16.9%]+217.5%1.293.05+136.9%
Japan127 [1.9%]109 [1.2%]-14.2%1293 [4.5%]332 [1.2%]-74.3%10.183.05-70.1%
Other countries3214 [47.3%]5253 [56.4%]+63.4%8293 [29.2%]16021 [56.4%]+93.2%2.583.05+18.2%
World6799 [100.0%]9322 [100.0%]+37.1%28431 [100.0%]28431 [100.0%]+0.0%4.183.05-27.1%

Data sources: emissions, population projections. EU-27 is used as European Union will most likely expand before 2050, and I don't want considerations like that to complicate matters.

Right now just six big entities - China, India, USA, EU-27, Russia, and Japan - emit over 70% of global CO2. But poor countries will develop, and this means more emissions. India's emissions are ridiculously low now - due to poverty - but once Indians get richer they will want cars. They will want pretty things. This will use energy, and this will emit CO2. The same story will take place in the "rest of the world" category (which unfortunately mixes small rich countries with big poor countries, obscuring the change).

What kind of emission cuts will the big emitters have to do just to counteract population growth of the world and economic growth of poor countries? Assuming the burden will be equally shared, USA will have to cut by 83.7%, or to 1/6th of current per capita levels. EU, Japan, and Russia will have to cut by about 2/3 per capita, and even China will have to cut by 1/3 per capita, in spite of so much economic development still being ahead of them! Other countries will have a mix of increases for the poor, and very significant decreases for the rich.

Now how likely is this scenario? I quite doubt we'll actually achieve equal sharing of burden.  Cuts for developed countries people talk about tend to be around 15% levels by 2025, so presumably around 40% by 2050, and even these are best case scenarios.

Intrade thinks that odds of any cap and trade system being established in USA by 2011 is about 50:50, and that says nothing about levels of caps, and severity of loopholes passed due to industrial lobbyists' money. After that it's Palin's administration as Krugman says, so don't hope for any meaningful limits. In general, people vote for current party when economy is good, and vote against current party when economy is bad, no matter who's guilty. Current predictions of American unemployment for 2012 are so high, that Democrats are very likely to be voted out of power unless they get their act together.

Anyway, 40% by 2050 is nowhere near enough to even keep 2050's emissions equal to 2009's! So rich countries, especially USA, are not providing the leadership here. What are the chances that poor countries will voluntarily take most of the burden of reducing carbon emissions all on their own? I'd say extremely slim.

And, most importantly... even if reductions from the table did happen, and 2050's emissions were at 2009 levels and falling, this still leaves us with massive global warming problem as peak warming happens long after peak concentrations, and peak concentrations happen long after peak emissions.

What brings us to where we started - there's simply no realistic scenario under which geoengineering can be avoided.

1 comment:

Quickshot said...

Yeah, reducing it will be pretty tough. One can only hope they can beat your somewhat ambitious projections.