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".

Monday, September 22, 2014

Record Greenhouse Gases Continue to Accumulate in the Atmosphere

We experience weather at the local or regional level.  Here, one person may be in a heavy rainstorm, while there, somewhere else in the world, another could be in an uncomfortable heat wave.  Daily or weekly weather, however, is not the same as long-term regional or global climate; climate relates to yearly, multi-year, and even decade-long behavior. 

The world’s climate is affected by the atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs), which continued unabated during 2013.  GHGs in the atmosphere preferentially retain heat radiating from the earth’s surface and prevent its escape to space. 

Record High Levels of Carbon Dioxide.  The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), an agency of the United Nations, reported recently that the global average concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2), a major GHG, reached a record level of 396 parts per million (ppm; volume of CO2 gas in 1 million volumes of air) in 2013 (see the graphic below). 

Atmospheric concentration of CO2 in ppm, reported monthly from 1984 to the present.
The WMO evaluates observations gathered from many land-based stations, ship-based observatories and aircraft.  The increase in CO2 from 2012, 2.9 ppm, was the largest yearly change since 1984.  The present CO2 concentration is 42% higher than that before the industrial revolution began during the century between 1750 and 1850.  The dramatic increase in CO2 emissions in the last 160 years, coinciding with the increasing role that fossil fuels have played in powering the world’s economic growth during that period, is shown below.

Annual rates of emission of CO2 (evaluated on the basis of the carbon portion of the carbon dioxide molecule) from the three main fossil fuels, plus the production of cement from limestone.  The amounts shown represent about 80% of all human-derived carbon, with most of the remainder arising from human-induced deforestation.
Source: The Third U. S. National Climate Assessment (data from Boden et al. 2012);

Even more recently the New York Times reported that another international group of climate scientists likewise found that GHG emissions in 2013 reached record levels.  Worldwide this group found that the increase from the previous year was 2.3%, while in the U. S. the increase was 2.9%, opposing a decreasing trend in earlier years.

Why should we care about this pattern in CO2 levels?

As atmospheric CO2 levels trend higher the long-term worldwide average temperature of the earth’s atmosphere has also been increasing, in concert with the increasing concentration of CO2 (see the graphic below).  This has been happening because of the greenhouse effect of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (also reported by the WMO).

Correlation between global temperature and atmospheric CO2 concentration from 1880 to 2012.  The thick black line gives the yearly CO2 concentration in parts per million (volumes of CO2 present in 1 million volumes of air) with values along the right vertical axis.  The ends of the blue and red lines show the temperature with values along the left vertical axis.  The horizontal line shows the average temperature across this time span.  The ends of the blue lines show the temperature values for years in which the temperature was below the average, and the ends of the red lines show the temperature values for years in which the temperature was above the average.
Source: The Third U. S. National Climate Assessment;

The global average temperature has increased by about 0.7-0.8ºC (1.3-1.4ºF) over pre-industrial temperatures.  As a current example, U. S. government scientists report that each of the months June, July and August 2014 were the hottest on record, when averaged over the entire globe.  These temperatures exceeded the previous monthly records set in 1998. 

The increased CO2 levels arise directly as a result of humanity’s burning of fossil fuels for energy, and not from natural causes (see also the U. S. National Climate Assessment (a U. S. government interagency report) issued May 2014).

There have been many reports over the past several months documenting increasing GHG emissions and warmer long-term global average temperatures.  These include the Fifth Assessment Report of the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Third U. S. National Climate Assessment, and the two reports mentioned here.  The persistent drumbeat of reports on global warming emphasize the conclusion that the increase in atmospheric CO2 and the resulting increase in global average temperature are manmade: they originate from humanity’s burning of fossil fuels for energy to drive economic development. 

Higher worldwide temperatures are leading to more, and more extreme, climate and weather events.  For example, warmer temperatures permit the atmosphere to hold more water vapor, so that many regions will likely experience heavier rain and snow, leading to flooding.  In other areas, higher temperatures will likely increase evaporation of moisture from the land leading to drought.  Both flooding and drought can reduce crop yields, leading to higher prices or famine.  Sea levels are rising as land-based ice sheets and glaciers melt, with the runoff entering the ocean.  All these trends lead to physical and socioeconomic harm to humanity as extreme patterns and catastrophes inflict more damage than in earlier times.

Human health is likewise significantly harmed, as air quality is degraded and as warmer conditions make it easier for disease-bearing microorganisms to flourish and infect the population.

Increased emission of GHGs is a worldwide problem requiring a worldwide solution.  The international community is currently beginning final negotiations on a worldwide treaty to reduce GHG emissions, undertake adaptation measures and assist those nations most adversely affected by global warming.  The participating nations must approach these negotiations in good faith, with an eye to the future, so they can agree to meaningful abatement and adaptation policies.  Our wellbeing, and that of future generations to follow, demands no less.

© 2014 Henry Auer

Thursday, September 11, 2014

China Plans a Nationwide Carbon Market

China recently confirmed its plan to place the entire nation under a carbon market (cap-and-trade regime) to lower its annual rate of emitting carbon dioxide (CO2), the important greenhouse gas, beginning in 2016.
  • China intends to continue lowering its carbon intensity, i.e., the amount of CO2 emitted for each US$ of gross domestic product (GDP) that the economy produces.
  • The goal is to reduce the carbon intensity by 40-45% below the 2005 value by 2020.  Averaged over this 15-year period, this corresponds to a reduction of 2.7-3% per year.  This can arise from increased efficiencies in energy production and use from fossil fuels, and by increased production of energy from renewable sources.
  • While this accomplishment would be highly significant, the objective does not directly address China’s total CO2 emission rate.
  • China’s net annual rate of emitting CO2 is projected to grow between 2014 and 2040, with much of the increase occurring in the period up to 2020 (see the graphic below).
Global projected energy-related carbon dioxide emission rates per year to 2040.  RED, China.  OECD, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, representing already industrialized countries of the world; “rest of OECD” excludes the U. S.  Non-OECD represents developing countries of the world; “rest of non-OECD” excludes China and India.
  • The average growth rate for China’s energy-related CO2 emissions from 2010 to 2020 is about 5.3% per year, comparable to the growth in overall energy consumption, about 5.5% per year.  Note that these objective data already reflect any improvements in carbon intensity.
  • The national carbon market envisioned for China would be far larger than any other carbon market operating in the world today.
Cap-and-trade systems are one of two principal strategies for limiting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (especially CO2); the other is a direct tax on carbon-containing fuels.  Cap-and-trade regimes limit emissions by capping each year’s allowed amount of GHG emissions, and lowering the cap each year.  Low-efficiency facilities can acquire more allowances from more efficient ones by trading on an open market or exchange, thus establishing a price for emissions. 
A small number of cap-and-trade regimes exists already.  They have varying degrees of effectiveness.  The European Union’s Emission Trading System was highly ineffective for several years because it distributed too large a number of allowances.  The U. S. has not enacted any federal law regulating GHG emissions.  Recently, however, President Obama’s administration has raised efficiency requirements for vehicles and has issued draft rules limiting emissions from electric power plants.  The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, in nine northeastern American states, operates an effective system, but one which is limited both in its goals and because it applies only to large electric power generators.  The state of California is implementing a significant cap-and-trade regime covering its entire energy economy. 
As noted above, China’s national cap-and-trade system will be the largest in the world by far.
China has been the world’s largest emitter of GHGs since 2009.   China is projected to dramatically increase its overall energy consumption over the period 2010-2040, continuing its rapid growth in use of energy in recent years (see the graphic below).  Most is supplied by fossil fuels.

Annual rates of energy usage for China, the U. S. and India.  Actual use up to 2010; projected usage thereafter.  1 quadrillion = 1 million billion.  Btu, British thermal unit.
Source: U. S. Energy Information Administration; (slide 5).
The drastic increase in China’s energy consumption in recent years has resulted in a corresponding growth in its annual rate of CO2 emissions.  Projecting forward over the period 2010-2040 the Energy Information Administration believes the emissions growth rate will average about 2.1% per year.
A major factor contributing to China’s high rates of CO2 emissions is its reliance on coal to provide almost 70% of its energy.  Of all the fossil fuels, burning coal emits 50% to 90% more CO2 than the others in order to obtain the same amount of heat energy.
China’s Five Year Plans (FYPs) have programmed in the changes detailed here. 
According to the report “Delivering Low Carbon Growth – A Guide to the 12th Five Year Plan, during the 12th FYP, covering 2011-2015, the carbon intensity was to improve by 17%, and the 13th FYP (2016-2020) already included the reduction of 40-45% with respect to the carbon intensity of 2005 mentioned at the outset.  The proportion of energy provided by non-fossil fuels is to be 11.4% in the 12th FYP and 15.0% in the 13th FYP.  The actual increase in primary energy consumption was 6.3% per year in the 11th FYP, and intended to be 3.75-5% in the 12th FYP.
Market-based incentives.  Already during the 12th FYP China set up 7 regional and provincial pilot cap-and-trade projects, placing limits on CO2 emissions.  The experience gained from these pilots is to provide useful background for setting up the nationwide system.
China and other developing countries, together with developed countries, have to agree to meaningful reductions in the world’s GHG emissions that are currently being negotiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  China, for one, has emphasized its achievements in lowering its carbon intensity, even though its use of fossil fuels has been increasing resulting in increased annual rates of GHG emissions.   Agreement on a new emissions treaty is intended during 2015, and it is foreseen to enter into force by 2020.  All nations of the world should approach these negotiations in good faith, and strive to achieve agreement on meaningful reductions in GHG emissions.

© 2014 Henry Auer