Last year, I wrote about the challenges of finding current data on greenhouse gas emissions. Lately, I've been looking into the numbers on the global carbon budget. My conclusion: while there are many good pieces written, most of the graphics are poor, and, while most generally agree on the numbers (+/- 30%), there is a lot of confusion because people don't use consistent units. Some people use GtC (giga tonnes of carbon) or a million, million metric tonnes of carbon. Others use GtCO2. Sometimes people will use GtCO2eq. And there is the not-so-occasional use of simply Gt (presumably we're supposed to just know whether its carbon or carbon dioxide).
Here is my graphic, depicting what I understand to be a fairly widely held view of the numbers.
The next picture gets into a little more detail. In the IPCC's 2014 AR5 report, they used 2011 data and, assuming a 66% chance of staying under 2 degrees Celsius, noted we had a remaining carbon budget of about 1000 GtCO2. As of 2014 we've used about 150 GtCO2 of this, the remainder is 850 GtCO2 or about 230 GtC.
Another well-known writing on this topic is Bill McKibben's piece in Rolling Stone from 2012. He also used 2011 numbers, but took the numbers from Carbon Tracker, which used an 80% confidence level of staying under 2 degrees Celsius. His number was 565 GtCO2 or 155 GtC. Again, since 2011 we've used about 25% of this remaining budget, leaving only about 440 GtCO2 or 120GtC.
There are other numbers in other places. Rob Jackson and colleagues in The Bridge came up with a remaining budget of 900 GtCO2 or 245 GtC with a 66% certainty level of staying below 2 degrees Celsius.
Of course all these numbers depend on our understanding of the climate system, what policies we come up with to mitigate land-use drivers, and the accuracy of the emissions data.
But the general story told is that, if we think about the Earth's fossil fuels, we've used about 40% of what we know to be recoverable, and we can use perhaps one-sixth to one-third of of what remains, depending on how much we are willing to risk going over two degrees Celsius. Of course, two degree Celsius is not a magic number. There's no way to know if there are tipping points below two degrees Celsius.
Last summer there was talk about the impacts of climate change on the Pacific Northwest. Famed meteorologist and weather blogger, Cliff Mass, argued that the PNW could be a refuge from climate change. http://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2014/07/will-pacific-northwest-be-climate.html
As he is a meteorologist, it is not surprising that he focuses mainly on sea level rise, precipitation, and temperature, although at the end of his post he does mention the possible challenge of incoming climate refugees (from California).
While the PNW may not directly experience extreme weather effects, this does not make it a climate refuge. In fact, I argue that the idea of a climate refuge is inherently inconsistent with a globally connected world. Here, I make two simple points.
First, as several commentators to his blog post already pointed out, the PNW is not immune to ocean acidification. The absorption of CO2 into oceans is changing their acidity, with the predictable outcomes for ocean ecology. Species that are vulnerable to acidity will find it increasingly difficult to reproduce or survive. Shellfish growers along Washington’s coasts are already finding that shellfish cannot reproduce reliability or as productively in natural waters due to the rise in acidity that we have already seen. Other species that are commercially fished or harvested as traditional food in indigenous cultures are also affected. The oceans have always connected the PNW to the rest of the world. Moreover, we are connected to people in distant places economically as well, in a manner that should dispel the myth of a “climate refuge.”
We live and depend on a globally interconnected economy, consequently, there is no haven, no protected space that is insulated from climate shocks whose immediate effects are felt elsewhere. When distant places are affected by extreme weather, the effects eventually are felt by us too.
Recently, the National Research Council completed a report for the US intelligence community, documenting the threats that climate change pose to US national security. While the study excluded several major items (like protective actions countries may take to make themselves more resilient, such as land grabs in Africa, or direct threats to the US military’s ability to conduct operations) and while it focused only on climate threats with immediate impacts outside of the USA, it did highlight a number of important pathways by which Americans, no matter where they live, could experience.
I won’t review the entire report here. One example should be enough to carry the point. For more detail, read chapter 4 in the report, all NAS reports are available free on-line. This one is available at the National Academy website here.
Consider the globally connected food system. This system has developed to ensure there is access to food around the globe. Countries whose domestic supply falls short can purchase grain on the world market. However, this food system has evolved under an earlier climate regime. In other words, it has developed to produce and transport certain amounts and types of foods in certain temporal and geographic patterns. A different climate regime that places extraordinary stresses upon this system may cause it to underperform, particularly in the short-term.
Extreme weather leads to poor harvests. As demand for food increases so does the price. We have experienced this in recent years, most notably 2010-2011. Lack of food or high prices can also lead to social unrest, which can have myriad consequences. For instance, the report discusses how a heat wave in Russia let to high wheat prices in 2011, and high prices were one impetus for the Arab Spring. While we need to be careful about asserting causality with any one stream of events, it is the larger underlying pattern of connections and vulnerabilities that the study committee focused upon.
Even if we zoom in to just the USA, we see the same pattern of spatial interdependencies that make claims of a “climate haven” dubious. Consider this. Weather-related impacts in the USA can have numerous impacts on people living in places that are not immediately affected. For instance, one-third of US petroleum production is located in the Gulf of Mexico and other coastal areas. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 shut down all petroleum production in the Gulf and Superstorm Sandy impacted oil imports and refining on the East Coast. Both to higher petroleum prices throughout the country. Those higher prices are immediately felt in the PNW, even though we did not experience either of those storms. The lesson is: geographical distance is no protection in a world with integrated markets. While we all want to find a silver lining in the devastating story of climate change, any silver linings we find will pale against the other consequences.
The fact is there is no such thing as a climate haven in an interconnected world. Globalization has made us one. Believing that we in the PNW somehow enjoy special protections by virtue of our oceans, mountains, wind patters, or whatever is misguided and dangerous. It is misguided because it is plainly not true. The oceans connect us. The economy connects us. It is dangerous because it may encourage us to withdraw from our collective responsibility to act to mitigate and adapt to global climate change. This is a global problem. We are part of the global community. Climate change is a problem for us and for future generations. All of us are needed to solve it. The Pacific Northwest is no haven from the changes that are coming.
I searched for data on global greenhouse gas emissions by country and was disappointed with what I found. Data in AR5 WG3 are from 2010. The Wikipedia site’s data are from 2010. It says they are from World Resources Institute (WRI), but WRI just gets their data from the UNFCCC. By the way, WRI’s new Climate Data Explore (CAIT), provides some interesting graphic output. However, it uses 2012 data.
Under the United Nations’s Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty (which was ratified by the US Senate), Annex I countries to the treaty (the more industrialized nations) are required to report their annual emissions of greenhouse gasses. The UNFCCC established and maintains the technical guidelines for doing this, and compiles the data. However, this process is disappointingly slow. While a note on the homepage reports that the data have been updated with 2013 numbers, all the downloads on the Annex I time-series data page only extend only to 2012. The same goes for the country GHG profiles (which are very useful). The only place I could find 2013 data on the UNFCCC site was in the national reports, which are here. Apparently the 2013 have not been organized by UNFCCC, or at least, I could not find it on their website.
UNFCCC exports data to numerous sites and that list is available here. It includes the USEPA, but the most current data on the USEPA site is from 2012. It also includes the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. The best report on that site was the Trends in Global CO2 Emissions. This is a 2014 report that includes 2013 data. It notes in the report that the data are somewhat preliminary, however they have good confidence in the overall accuracy. If you are concerned about the high accuracy numbers for an individual country, you will have difficulty finding data that are newer than 2012.
The Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center at Oak Ridge National Lab (US Department of Energy), also estimates CO2 emissions. The estimates for 2011-2013 are preliminary. It is these estimates that are used by the Global Carbon Atlas. It's important to realize that the Atlas is using DOE estimates rather than UNFCCC data.
It’s incredible to me that, in an age when we are so used to having data quickly available, that it would be so difficult to get current data on an issue of this importance.
The Clean Power Plan will reduce USA greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity generation sector by 32% off of 2005 levels by 2030. This is about 800 million tonnes of CO2 gas.
Some people argue that 800 million tonnes is a small number, in the global context. Global CO2 emissions in 2013 were 34,082 million tonnes. 800 is a mere 2.3% of 34,082. There are those who argue that the Clean Power Plan will hurt the American economy and only reduce global emissions a tiny amount. Their conclusion is that it doesn’t make sense for the USA to reduce pollution such as small amount, because the global effect will be slight.
This is an old argument and it’s long been recognized as a way of thinking that leads to collective destruction. It leads to what is called “the tragedy of the commons.” Consider a common resource that is owned by no one, but which everyone can use. It is completely logical (from an individual point of view) for each person to exploit that resource as much as possible believing that, if I don’t use it, someone else will. But what makes perfect sense from an individual perspective, ends up harming everyone. This kind of thinking has led to over grazing, over fishing, and, now, the changing of the Earth’s climate.
800 million tonnes of CO2 is a significant number. It’s more than the entire yearly emissions of Germany, the world’s 3rd largest economy. Moreover, there are many European countries that are taking extraordinary steps to reduce their emissions, and at high cost to residents and tax payers. If the logic of individual thinking has weight in the USA, which is the 2nd largest polluter, how much more compelling should that logic be in smaller countries? And if those smaller countries don’t act, and we don’t act, we are surely on the path of global tragedy.
It is important we don’t let the logic of individual thinking shape how we make national or state environmental and energy policy.
directs research at the Energy Trans Lab