See the Tabbed Pages for links to video tutorials, and a linked list of post titles grouped by topic.

This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Coal Fuels Developing Countries, but We Need to Decarbonize Energy Right Away

Summary.  Coal is the worst of the three principal fossil fuels in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, emitted into the atmosphere on burning.  Whereas annual rates of emission from developed countries are projected to remain steady, the emission rates from developing countries are predicted to rise by almost 3% per year as they burn more and more fossil fuels, mostly coal, each year.

Consequently, according to a growing group of leading climate scientists, the goal of limiting the long-term global average temperature rise to less than 2.0ºC (3.6ºF) likely will not be met.  This will have serious negative consequences on humanity and the planet. 

We conclude that every new investment in energy infrastructure starting “now” should construct renewable energy sources and institute energy efficiency instead of extending fossil fuel-based energy infrastructure.  The principal emitters of greenhouse gases, including the U. S. and China, should reach a “few-party” agreement to decarbonize their energy economies among themselves as soon as possible.

Introduction.  Coal is the worst of the three principal fossil fuels in terms of how much carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas, is emitted into the atmosphere for a given amount of heat produced on burning.  This is shown in the following table. 

It is seen that, on the basis of carbon-atom-to-carbon-atom in the various fuels,  coal emits almost twice as much CO2 per unit of heat obtained relative to natural gas.  This makes coal the most offending of the fossil fuels in contributing to the worsening of global warming. 

In view of this situation, it would be highly sensible to set policies in place that discourage expansion of coal-burning energy sources.  Yet coal is also highly abundant throughout the world, and readily mined at the scale needed to satisfy energy demand.  Indeed, use of coal for energy continues not merely at a level pace, but at an ever-growing rate, as energy demand around the world keeps increasing.

Growth in energy use and in emissions of greenhouse gases in China and other developing countries has been historically high, and is expected to continue growing in future decades (see Details at the end of this post).  China is the country with the greatest demand for energy sources, coupled with a very high rate of growth in its energy demand.  A large portion of its energy demand is provided by coal.  Use of coal for energy in China grew at an average rate of 8.8% per year from 2000 to 2011, while the rate for the rest of the world was 1.1% per year.  Overall, China’s total energy use more than doubled over this time period, closely tracking the growth in its economy.  Clearly, energy is needed to power expansion in production and infrastructure.

The U. S. Energy Information Administration (USEIA) foresees continued rapid growth in energy consumption in China, as well as in India, in the future decades from 2008 through 2035.  Most of this energy continues to be derived from coal and other fossil fuels, so their projected emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide likewise grow rapidly during this period. 

Energy use by India, though lower in absolute magnitude than that of China, also grows at a comparable rate, since its energy economy is also being developed with a strong reliance on coal.  In contrast, the growth in energy use among developed countries, and their corresponding annual rate of growth of greenhouse gas emissions, is much lower than that for China, India and other developing countries of the world.


China, India and other developing countries of the world have relied on coal and other fossil fuels to provide the energy needed to power their economic growth (as have most developed countries as well).  Coal is the most offensive of these fuels, for on burning it releases almost 50% to about 90% more carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, than other fuels.  This unremitting reliance on fossil fuels has resulted in a dramatic growth in the emissions of CO2, and is expected to continue without significant change in future decades (see Details, below), in the absence of new energy policies curtailing greenhouse gas emissions.

CO2 released into the atmosphere is rapidly distributed into the air all around the globe; it does not remain restricted to the air space over the region of the emitting source.  For this reason greenhouse gas emissions at any point on the planet exert their greenhouse effect on all humanity.  Every source of greenhouse gas emissions contributes to the climatic consequences of global warming inflicted across the face of the entire planet.  The developing countries of the world, for example, are continuing to expand their energy infrastructures by installing still more electric generating plants, industrial facilities, and motor vehicle fleets, mostly powered by fossil fuels, as seen in the projections for future fuel use and CO2 presented in this post.  We must understand, however, that every new facility made operational today cements a commitment to continue emitting CO2 throughout its operational lifetime: up to a century for housing and commercial structures, about 40-50 years for electric power plants, and 10-20 years for motor vehicles.  The actions our policymakers take today have decades-long consequences.

CO2, once emitted into the atmosphere, remains airborne indefinitely for at least 100 years, if not much longer (after a fixed, known fraction, about one-third, is absorbed by oceans).  Humanity has been adding new CO2 to the atmosphere since the industrial revolution began, and is doing so as shown in the Details at an ever-increasing rate.  The extent of increase of the global average temperature is determined by the total accumulated level of GHGs, not by the annual rate of emissions. The present level has already raised the long-term global average temperature by 0.7ºC (1.3ºF).  This increase is continuing higher as the CO2 concentration continues to increase. 
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  has set a target of limiting emissions such that the overall global average would not increase more than 2.0ºC (3.6ºF).  But climate scientists, examining current trends in the use of fossil fuels, now realize that humanity will fail to meet this target (these include Sir Robert Watson, former Chair of the IPCC; James Hansen, climate scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies ; Glen Peters and coworkers, Nature Climate Change vol. 3, pp. 4–6 (2013), doi:10.1038/nclimate1783; and Greenpeace “Point of No Return, The massive climate threats we must avoid”, January 2013).  

Recent annual conferences held by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), including those in Copenhagen (2009), Cancun (2010) and Durban (2011), have striven unsuccessfully to supplant the Kyoto Protocol on its expiration at the end of 2012.  At the Durban conference it became clear that agreement on a global warming treaty would be seriously delayed.   As confirmed at the Dubai conference in 2012, the objective now is to conclude negotiating a new treaty by 2015 for adoption by the nations of the world and implementation by 2020.

But this is most likely too late.  As seen in the projections shown in this post, representing trends in the absence of policies to reduce emissions, annual emission rates by developed countries will continue at a constant level, while annual rates by developing countries will rise indefinitely.  Neither of these trends points to reduced emissions.  Yet this is what is needed.  Moderate abatement measures instituted a decade or two ago would have been relatively easy to implement.  But in the meantime, in their absence, global emissions have raised the CO2 content of the atmosphere, so now more drastic abatement measures have to be implemented as soon as possible. 

Thomas F. Stocker, a climate scientist at the University of Bern, Switzerland, calculates (Science2013: Vol. 339 pp. 280-282; doi: 10.1126/science.1232468)  that the longer the delay the more stringent the mitigation policy must be to attain a goal of any given maximum temperature increase over the preindustrial temperature.  As of now, for example, an ambitious goal of a limiting rise of 1.5ºC (2.7ºF) would need a relatively stringent abatement rate of more than 5% per year, while a higher limit of 2.0ºC (3.6ºF) would need a lower abatement rate of over 2% per year.  But if we wait until 2020, for example, a limiting rise of 1.5ºC would require almost a 10% per year abatement rate, and a limiting rise of 2.0ºC would require about a 3% abatement rate.  Dr. Stocker concludes “…even well-intentioned and effective international efforts to limit climate change must face the hard physical reality of certain temperature targets that can no longer be achieved if too much carbon has already been emitted to the atmosphere. Both delay and insufficient mitigation efforts close the door on limiting global mean warming permanently” (emphasis added).

This post concludes that every investment in energy infrastructure undertaken from this date forward should construct decarbonizing energy facilities and implement energy efficiency instead of extending fossil fuel-based energy infrastructure.  These measures can be initiated unilaterally, but in addition the principal emitters of greenhouse gases, including the U. S. and China, should reach a “few-party” agreement to decarbonize their energy economies among themselves as soon as possible, outside of the UNFCCC process.  Our climate future and that of coming generations demands nothing less.


The historical use of coal by China, and by all other countries, is shown in the following graphic.
Coal consumption, in billions of tons used per year, from 2000 to 2011 for China (red line) and the rest of the world (black line).
Source: U. S. Energy Information Administration,

In all countries of the world not including China (black line), coal use grew from 3.8 billion tons per year to 4.3 billion tons over the eleven years shown.  This works out to an average growth rate of 1.1% per year.  In contrast, coal use in China grew from 1.5 billion tons per year in 2000 to 3.8 billion tons in 2011, for an average growth rate of 8.8% per year.  Use in 2011 grew by 9%, continuing the long-term trend. 

World trends for coal use for 1980 and 2010 are shown in the two images below


World use of coal in 1980 and 2010 in billions of tons (Images captured from an animated version tracing year by year changes).   While North American use has expanded slightly, coal use in Europe and the former Soviet Union has actually fallen.  In the same period, coal use in Asia, due primarily to China and India, has expanded dramatically.
Source: U. S. Energy Information Administration

This link animates the above images year by year between the 1980 and 2010 endpoints.  The two still images and the animation bring home in striking visual impressions the vast growth in Asian coal use, originating mostly in China and India.

The growth in overall energy use by China tracks quite exactly with its economic expansion, as seen below:
Total energy use by China (in quadrillion British thermal units (aqua bars)) and its economic growth (in 2000 U. S. constant $ (brown line)).
Source: U. S. Energy Information Administration
About 71% of China’s electricity originates from thermal generation, mostly powered by coal.  Electricity generation doubled between 2005 and 2011, with coal-fired generation growing proportionately.  In some years in this period, China was commissioning 1-2 new coal-fired electricity plants per week. Even though China has the largest coal reserves in the world, it imports additional coal to meet its demand, starting in 2009.  (A detailed accounting of China’s historical energy economy is available at the USEIA).
In 2010, China accounted for about 73% of Asia’s coal use.  From 1980 to 2010 Asia’s coal use increased 403% during a period in which total world use increased 94% and North America’s use increased 50%.  In 1980 Asia accounted for 24% of the world’s total use of coal, while in 2010 this share grew to 63%. (Source: U. S. Energy Information Administration).
USEIA published its International Energy Outlook 2011 in September 2011.  Using a Reference scenario which assumes no further governmental energy policies other than those already in place in 2011 it projects trends in energy production and consumption from 2008, the last year of historical data included, through 2035.  As seen in the graphic below, total energy use in China and in India increases by much higher annual growth rates than does the increase in usage by the U. S.
Source: U. S. Energy Information Administration
China and India, continuing the historical trend already noted, derive much of their energy in the period projected through 2035 by burning coal.  This contributes to large accumulations of atmospheric CO2.  This is seen in the following graphic:

Historical emissions of CO2 from 1990 to 2008, and projections under the Reference Scenario to 2035 for developed countries (OECD, black line) and developing countries (non-OECD, red line). Source: U. S. Energy Information Administration;
Emissions for developed countries in the Organization for Economic Development (OECD) increase minimally over the projected period, while those for the non-OECD countries increase 73% from 2008 to 2035, to 28.9 billion metric tons of CO2.  Emissions originate worldwide mostly from coal, then from liquid fuels (powering transportation), then natural gas.  The growth in emissions from coal originates almost entirely from developing countries, which are dominated by emissions from China and India.  Growth rates for emissions from China and India are 2.6% per year and 2.7% per year, respectively, and the rate for all developing countries is 2.1% per year.  By contrast, the growth rate for emissions from developed countries is only 0.2% per year.

 © 2013 Henry Auer


  1. Hello Henry,
    You have correctly pointed out the accelerating CO2 emissions. You have identified that, without cooperation of China and India, any reductions by the USA will be fruitless and likely costly. While emissions are accelerating, the rate of increase of atmospheric concentrations is not.You have also failed to note that human emissions are but a small fraction of the natural. In fact, the variability of the total emissions is far greater than the human component. As emissions have accelerated, temperature has not increased overall for 16 years. Even James hansen has acknowledged this plateau and has labeled the cause as climatic noise in his latest paper. He also says that CO2 is actually being taken out of the atmosphere contrary to the cited 100 plus years you cite. There are many papers that dispute that and claim something like 7 years.

    The solar related scientists in my forum "It's the Sun" correctly predicted the amplitude of the current SC24 before NASA and others. It is less than one third as strong as SC23. We are approaching the peak at the end of this year and predictions are that there may not be another cycle for 30 or even 100 years. Even the usual solar magnetic polarity flip every 11 years will likely not occur at the maximum as usual. The likelyhood is a cool , if not cold, period that will demand as much cheap, plentiful energy as we can muster regardless of co2 emissions which is plant food. We have had CO2 concentrations 1000 times higer with colder temps than we currently have. As the name says, It's the Sun

    One other note, one of the fellows in my group, Piers Corbyn, correctly predicted the beginning, and end, of the 2010 Russion heat wave and Pakistani floods. He predicted the snow storms that hit the NE USA from Dec26th 2010- Jan 2011 and nailed all 4 to the day. He did this mostly a month in advance based on the Sun and the MOON. He also predicted Huricane Irene, date of inception and location, path and strength along the way as well as the storm this past week.You guys say it will happen, he says exactly when.Your hypothess is falsified.

    As far as 2 percent of the planet having the warmest year in 2012 take a look at my blog and you'll see that 1934 used to be .6 C warmer than 1998 per GISS in 1999 but now it is .4C colder allowing 2012 to beat out 1998 by .2C. Even the data sets are fudged to perptuate this scam. It is time to check the figures again and take a long look.

    Your blog says I have illegal characters

  2. Kirt Griffin seeks to dismiss the conclusion that man-made emissions of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, are warming our planet. His facts are wrong; as others have stated, one is entitled to one's opinion, but one is not entitled to his/her own facts.
    My videos, "Light and Heat - The Greenhouse Effect" and "Fossil Fuels and Global Warming" set out the direct causation between intensified burning of fossil fuels and increased global warming.
    Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are increasing each year; see and for real-time and historical data .
    Fossil fuel use is increasing every year worldwide as shown in the present blog post above.
    World temperatures continue to increase. World climate is a defined by long-term world-wide surface and satellite temperature measurements over multi-year time spans. Many factors enter into world-wide average temperatures, including the storing and recirculating of heat from the greenhouse effect in the world's oceans, both surface layers and at great depths; these interchange on time scales of years to decades. This is one of many factors contributing to the "noise" in the annual temperature record.
    A 60-person Federal Advisory Committee working under 13 Federal agencies (The "National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee" or NCADAC) has overseen the development of a draft climate report issued January 2013 ( The report has contributions from more than 240 climate scientists. Among its summary conclusions are (
    "1. Global climate is changing now...[over the] past 50 years [it is] primarily due to human activities.
    2. Global climate is projected to continue to change over this century and beyond. The magnitude...depends primarily on the amount of heat-trapping gases emitted globally, and how sensitive the climate is to those emissions."
    The blog post above deals directly with the first of these factors, the amount of emissions.
    James Hansen and coworkers in Proceedings of the [U.S.] National Academy of Sciences, on August 6, 2012 examined temperature deviations around the world since 1951. Using rigorous statistical analysis the authors showed that, compared to the base period 1951-1980, the temperature variation for each of the decades 1981-1990, 1991-2000, and 2001-2011, shifted successively to higher temperatures. More and more locations around the world had decadal average temperatures that were much higher than would be expected from the normal variability observed during the base period.
    Coumou and Rahmstorf Nature Climate Change, July 2012 (published online: 25 March 2012 | doi: 10.1038/nclimate1452) found that the number of new record hot days bwetween 2000 and 2011, analyzed on a monthly basis, is more than three times that expected if the climate were not undergoing a long-term warming trend. They predict higher record temperatures because of “human influence on the climate”.