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Greenhouse Gas Emissions: The Good News and the Bad News

RP Siegel | Wednesday November 9th, 2011 | 0 Comments

There was some pretty grim news on the carbon emissions front last week. According to the US Dept. of Energy, emissions for the year 2010 jumped considerably over the previous year, and that is in spite of the economic downturn. The 564 million ton jump, the largest ever, put more carbon into than atmosphere than the IPCC’s worst case scenario which predicts a 7.5 degree Fahrenheit increase in global average temperature by the end of this century. Most of the emissions increase came from the US and China.

Travel rose significantly in 2010, as did manufacturing and the use of fossil fuels. Coal burning increased 8 percent for the year. The year 2010 was also recorded by NOAA and NASA as the warmest on record.

Zark Anderson provided a breakdown of the 3.9 percent increase in the US. Roughly 1 percent came from population increase, 2 percent from increased productivity (which I assume increased production), 0.7 percent came from products requiring increased energy for production, and 0.2 percent is from the use of more carbon intensive fuel such as coal instead of natural gas. Emission in China rose by 10 percent.

The Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center showed increases globally in every segment. In the US, this reverses a trend which showed a pronounced decrease since 2007, which is still the record year for CO2 emissions in this country. According to Lester Brown, coal use dropped 10 percent and oil use 11 percent over that four-year period, which even considering the increase in natural gas use, resulting in a net carbon emission decrease of 7 percent. But that was a much bigger decrease at the end of 2009.

Brown attributes most of the decrease to the reduction in coal burning, and gives credit to the Sierra Club for their aggressive campaigning to shut down existing coal plants and block construction of any new ones. There are currently 492 coal plants in the US, 68 of which are currently slated to be closed. Stricter clean air regulations that are forthcoming will force many others to close rather than face costly retrofits.

It’s the right direction but is it fast enough?

Brown says that with incandescent bulbs being phased out and giving way to much more efficient CFL and LED’s, and with automobile fuel economy increasing and fleet size decreasing (it peaked in 2008), that 7 percent decline could become a 20 percent decline by the year 2020. That is certainly good news.

Other good news includes the fact that the developed countries that ratified the Kyoto Protocol have reduced their emissions overall since then and have achieved their target of reducing their emission by 8 percent below 1990 levels.

It’s really the developing countries that are the biggest concern now. It’s great that they are ramping up their economies and providing better quality of life for their people. But if they continue to use coal as their primary fuel, then we are all in trouble.

Only a multi-national effort can adequately address this issue by providing alternatives to these economies, while protecting carbon-absorbing forests at the same time. The US needs to get off the sidelines and stop propping up what Annie Leonard calls the “dinosaur economy” in her new video, The Story of Broke, and take the lead before we are left behind in a very warm and very broken world.

What to do about China and their voracious appetite for dirty coal? Despite some scientist’s theory that their widespread use of coal may have actually slowed global warming (because of the particulates that block the sun from coming through), I would much rather see them, working in cooperation with partners around the world, commit to phasing in renewables as quickly as possible. If we have to resort to geo-engineering, I would think we could find something more benign than coal dust to do it with.

[Image credit:calignosus:Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water.  Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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