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Can Developed Countries Reduce Future Total World Carbon Emissions?


The Kyoto Protocol’s ultimate goal was to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at a level needed to mitigate future climate change.  Signatory Developed Countries committed to substantially reducing their future carbon emissions to accomplish this goal.  Developing Countries were exempted from Protocol carbon reductions.  Despite Protocol signatory Developed Countries generally complying with current carbon reduction targets, World atmospheric carbon concentrations continue to grow at alarming rates.  Can Developed Countries actually reduce future total World carbon emissions to mitigate climate change?

Protocol Summary – The Kyoto Protocol was negotiated and approved by most (Annex 1) Developed and (Non-Annex) Developing countries.  Signatory Annex 1 Developed countries considered ultimately reducing their carbon emissions by up to 80% in 2050 based 1990 baseline levels.

To achieve the goal of mitigating future climate change or global warming impacts, researchers estimate that atmospheric carbon (dioxide equivalent) concentrations must be kept below 400 ppm.  At this level, future global warming is estimated to be limited to about an increase of 2 oC.

The Protocol first phase went into force in 2005, which required Annex 1 signatory countries to initially reduce their 1990 basis carbon emissions by up to 8% in 2012.  Carbon emission reduction targets could be achieved by reducing in-country emissions or through different ‘flexible mechanisms’.  Flexible mechanisms allow Annex 1 Developed countries to generate, buy, sell and trade carbon credits to meet their emission reduction commitments, and also provide mechanisms to assist (financially aid) Non-Annex Developing countries to possibly reduce their future carbon emissions.  An international cap-and-trade system was created to provide Annex 1 Developed countries with the most economic alternatives to reducing their carbon emissions.

Protocol Historic Performance – The Kyoto Protocol has yet to significantly control World carbon emissions.  Refer to the following graph. 

Total Carbon Emissions – 1990-2010


The EIA International Energy data represents carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions based on consumption and flaring of fossil fuels only.  MMT = million metric tons

EIA data shows that total World carbon emissions were fairly constant during the early 1990’s and began gradually increasing due significantly to Non-Annex Developing countries’ emissions.  Growth of World and Non-Annex countries carbon emissions began increasing at larger rates after 2000 largely due to China.  The Chinese economy and associated emissions began to grow at rates greater than all other countries beginning 2001.  Annex 1 Developed countries slowly increasing carbon emission trend since the mid 1990’s was reversed in 2007 due to a combination of meeting new Protocol short-term reduction targets, and developing economic recessions.  Compared to the rest of the World, China’s carbon emissions continue to grow at relatively high rates today.

Signatory Annex 1 Developed countries’ carbon emissions began flattening as the Kyoto Protocol went into force in 2005.  Although the U.S. did not approve the Kyoto Protocol, its carbon emissions also began to flatten prior to the 2007-09 economic recession due to various Federal regulations (CAFE, Renewable Fuel Standards, etc.) originally intended to address energy security (petroleum oil imports alternatives).

Future Projected Carbon Emissions – The EIA routinely develops projections of International energy supply-consumption and associated fossil fuels carbon emissions.  The most recent report was published last year (IEO2011).  The IEO2011 forecasts that total World energy consumption should increase by about 50% 2013-2035.  Petroleum oil’s share of total world energy consumption is projected to decline from 33% to 28%.  Natural gas and coal total world energy supply percentages are projected to remain about constant, and the balance of total energy demand is met by significantly increased renewables production.  Despite these projected increases in the percentage of renewable energy and fossil fuels consumption percentage reductions, total world fossil fuels consumption and associated carbon emissions are projected to increase very significantly.  Refer to the following graph.

World Projected Carbon Emissions – 2011-2035


The EIA International Energy Outlook (IEO2011) data represents carbon dioxide (CO2) based on consumption and flaring of fossil fuels only.  MMT = million metric tons

The EIA IEO2011 data projects that total Annex 1 Developed countries carbon emissions including the U.S. are expected to increase by 9% 2013-2035.  During this same period total Non-Annex Developing countries carbon emissions are projected to increase by almost 50%.  China is estimated to account for half of this projected Non-Annex countries carbon increase.  Of the projected world increases in carbon emissions 2013-2035, total Non-Annex Developing countries account for almost 90% of the total increase.

Why Are Developing Countries’ Carbon Emissions Increasing More Than Developed Countries? – Since 2007 total carbon emissions for Non-Annex Developing countries began to exceed total Annex 1 Developed countries including the U.S. due to the Kyoto Protocol going into force, the recent economic recessions, and various government policies designed to increase energy efficiency and renewables production (independent to the Protocol).

The IEO2011 projects total world population should increase by over 1.34 billion 2013-2035.  This represents a 19% increase in total world population.  During this same period Annex 1 Developed countries populations (including the U.S.) are projected to only increase by 96 million and China is projected to increase by 82 million.  The balance of world population increases, or about 1.16 billion, is projected to occur within Non-Annex Developing countries (excluding China).  Total Non-Annex Developing countries (including China) are projected to account for 93% of the future World population increase.

In addition to increased population other major factors that contribute to increased World carbon emissions include increasing GDP and ‘per capita’ carbon emissions.  IEO2011data analysis indicates that changes in per capita GDP of all Developed and Developing countries are projected to increase nearly proportionally in future years.  The per capita Annex 1 Developed countries carbon emissions are project to be relatively constant 2011-2035, and Non-Annex Developing countries per capita carbon emissions are projected to increase.  Refer to the following graph.

World Projected Per Capita Carbon Emissions


EIA International Energy Outlook (IEO2011) data.  MT = metric tons.  Per capita carbon emissions are calculated based on total emissions divided by total populations.  China is excluded from total ‘balance’ of Non-Annex countries per capita data.

The IEO2011 data shows that both China’s and the total ‘balance’ of Non-Annex Developing countries’ (excluding China) per capita carbon emissions are projected to increase very significantly 2011-2035.  China’s per capita emissions are expected to increase at rates well above all other countries’ averages and could equal average Annex 1 Developed countries by about mid century.

Protocol Feasible Future Performance – The Kyoto Protocol is supposed to stabilize world atmospheric carbon concentrations at less than 400 ppm.  Assuming atmospheric carbon concentrations are proportional to anthropologic carbon emission rates and the current stable concentration is 393 ppm, world atmospheric carbon concentrations will possibly exceed the maximum 400 ppm target by 2020 (based on EIA historic and IEO carbon projections, and NOAA historic data).

Annex 1 countries (excluding the U.S.) have considered reducing their total 1990 carbon emission levels by 80% in 2050.  The IEO2011 projections clearly do not support this level of reduction.  My previous analysis of the Kyoto Protocol flexible mechanisms and cap-and-trade process finds the ability of EU Annex 1 countries to substantially reduce their actual future carbon emissions is not very feasible.  What if the Kyoto Protocol signatory Annex 1 countries and the U.S. were to miraculously reduce their future carbon emissions to 80% of 1990 levels by 2050?  Based on this assumption the IEO2011 data was adjusted accordingly.  Refer to the following graph.

Modified World Carbon Emissions Projection – 80% 1990-2050 Reduction


EIA International Energy Outlook (IEO2011) data modified to reduce Annex 1 countries total 1990 carbon emissions by 80% in 2050.  Total Non-Annex carbon emissions are projected to increase 2035-2050 at a 2.1% per year level consistent with original 2008-2035 projections

Reducing all Annex 1 Developed countries carbon emissions to 80% of 1990 levels in 2050 could stabilize total world carbon emissions 2013-2029.  However, due to continuously increasing Non-Annex Developing countries projected growth in carbon emissions, total World carbon emissions would still exceed 41,000 MMT/yr. by 2050.  Roughly estimated atmospheric concentrations would be on the order of 420 ppm mid century.  While these results would be a significant improvement over current and IEO2011 projected trends, this analysis does clearly illustrate that Annex 1 Developed countries’ carbon emissions will soon become a minor contributor towards world climate change. 

The net result of Annex 1 Developed countries substantially reducing their actual carbon emissions at a cost of many $10’s Trillion is to only defer inevitable increased atmospheric carbon concentration builds and developing climate change impacts.  Based on current and projected chronically poor economic conditions, few, if any Developed countries should be expected to actually afford reducing their carbon emissions to 80% of 1990 levels.

Alternative Solutions to Better Managing Climate Change – The Kyoto Protocol and subsequent Conference of Parties (COP) negotiations have thus far failed in developing economically feasible and actual reductions in total world carbon emissions.  Due to limited successes of the Protocol and subsequent COP’s, Annex 1 Developed countries cannot solely mitigate continuous increases in future atmospheric carbon concentrations.  The EIA IEO2011 report may not be perfect, but it does reasonably illustrate that the major source of anthropological carbon emissions has clearly shifted from Annex 1 Developed countries to the Non-Annex Developing countries.

Factors rarely discussed in the COP negotiations are the primary reasons for rapidly increasing Non-Annex Developing countries’ carbon emissions: population and average living standards growth.  To expect China or other Developing countries to begin substantially constraining or reducing their carbon emissions raises the obvious moral-fairness issue relative to Annex 1 Developed countries’ historic development and higher average living standards.  Regardless of whether it’s in the best interests of the world or locally, neither China nor other Developing countries are likely to support any restrictions on their countries’ development without substantial financial support from Developed countries.  This financial support, however, is severely constrained due to the chronically struggling economies of most Developed countries and the growing magnitude of Developing countries’ carbon emissions.

For most countries to more effectively deal with future increasing world climate change it’s time to seriously reconsider current carbon control strategies.  Since climate change attributed to anthropological carbon emissions cannot be fully controlled due to continuously growing populations, increasing living standards and limited World financial resources, perhaps it’s time to shift focus from many current ineffective carbon reduction strategies to a more effective approach with tangible, controllable and more predictable results. 

A potentially more economically effective strategy for dealing with climate change can be taking full advantage of the synergies between domestic lower carbon fossil fuel alternatives and increased energy security (reduced imports).  In addition it’s time to more seriously address climate change ‘adaptation’.  A more effective carbon reduction strategy would require mandating that all current and new lower carbon projects and expenditures should directly decrease the need for oil imports from unstable and hostile countries (i.e. reduce high supply disruption risk imports).  All renewable or clean energy projects must be critically evaluated to ensure imports are directly reduced and the alternatives to fossil fuels are reasonably and economically sustainable (without perpetual Government subsidies).  Yes, continued support for technology innovation and R&D is definitely needed, but even this process can benefit significantly from better Government management practices. 

Besides replacing higher risk petroleum oil imports with domestic lower carbon alternatives or efficiency upgrades, increased priority must be placed on more effectively adapting to future climate change.  Instead of wasting our limited resources on expanding or rebuilding in-kind, and waiting for the next weather related flood, drought or hurricane disaster to knock it all down again, it’s time to relocate communities to safer (higher) ground and upgrade building-infrastructure standards to mitigate future climate change impacts.

Reducing the U.S. and other Developed countries reliance on oil imports from unstable, hostile countries has another major benefit.  Reducing or totally eliminating oil imports from OPEC countries could end the need to maintain (waste) huge-costly military resources to protect these foreign oil supplies.  Eliminating the need and waste to maintain a substantial military presence in the Greater Middle East will free up our limited resources and possibly increase the level of financial assistance available to help Developing countries better address climate change.

Image: Carbon Emissions via Shutterstock

John Miller's picture

Thank John for the Post!

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J Elliott's picture
J Elliott on Dec 15, 2012 11:02 pm GMT

You posting and the Department of Energy - Energy Information Administration International Energy Outlook 2011 report appear to contradict the positions of represented Nations at the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference COP-18 Qatar meeting.  Why do you believe the International Energy Outlook report is accurate?

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Dec 17, 2012 3:30 am GMT

The DOE/EIA routinely assembles huge amounts of data related to U.S. and World energy markets, supply-demand balances, economy factors and associated regulations.  The EIA has developed some of the most sophisticated programs that model various energy markets and has very qualified/experienced staff to generate high quality outlook reports on future projected energy balances, both domestically and internationally.  A recent study was published early this year that compared the EIA IEO report to other very well known and qualified organizations (IEA, BP, XOM & Shell) that also routinely generate similar forecasts (refer to the last page table).  While each organization’s projections varies to different levels on specific aspects of future energy supply-consumption due to differing assumptions, overall the projections are fairly similar.

My personal preference in using EIA data and outlook reports is due to the historic reasonable accuracy, very good transparency of input data and very detailed output data published for final projections.  The other sources tend to keep some of their data and assumptions proprietary or require payment for more detailed, but often still limited access to report development data.  What is fairly evident in reviewing all the different published projections is that the IEA is definitely more bullish on the future generation of green energy vs. the EIA.  My personal analysis finds the EIA assumptions and projections to be generally more feasible based on existing green technologies development, energy infrastructure constraints and costs.

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