Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) are responsible for global warming, the long-term worldwide average warming experienced since the industrial revolution. GHGs arise from human use of fossil fuels for energy. Major emitters of GHGs include both industrialized countries and, in recent decades, developing countries as well. Higher global temperatures cause the extremes of hot and cold, and wet and dry, weather of recent years. This blog examines global warming and its effects.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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”,
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:
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.
in billions of tons used per year, from 2000 to 2011 for China (red line)
and the rest of the world (black line).
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
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.
This linkanimates 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
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
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.
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:
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; http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/ieo/emissions.cfm.
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.