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Carbon Emissions Blow Past the Financial Crisis

Simon Donner's picture
University of British Columbia

Simon Donner is a professor in the Geography Department at the University of British Columbia who studies why the climate matters to people and aquatic ecosystems, including rivers and coral reefs.

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  • Mar 12, 2013
Data from CDIAC. Asterisks notes dips with multiple possible causes.  

During a plenary presentation at last fall’s AGU meeting, Bob Watson argued that this is the first time in modern history that the carbon emissions have fully rebounded from a drop, due to some economic or political crisis, using a chart along these lines.

While this is by no means a comprehensive scientific analysis, it is a very interesting and telling observation. If you look at the global fossil fuel emissions data, all of the major disruptions to energy and oil use in the past 60 years caused carbon emissions to drop or level off. Annual emissions would later continue to rise at a rate similar to that before the disruption, but the total annual emissions would not “catch up” to where it “would have been” without the disruption.

The recent world financial crisis appears, on the surface at least, to be an exception. Carbon emissions stopped rising in 2008 and 2009, but rebounded so strongly in the past couple years, that emissions have reached the level to which they appeared to be headed, presuming linear extrapolation, before the crisis.

I’ll let you argue why: whether it is the nature of the crisis, the rise of China’s economy, etc. Regardless of the cause, the effect points to the potential naivete, not to mention the questionable morality, of people thinking or hoping that economic slowdowns will ‘naturally’ limit carbon emissions and save the world from the dangerous impacts of climate change.

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John Miller's picture
John Miller on Mar 12, 2013

Simon, there is no argument from where the added carbon emissions are coming from.  Despite the best efforts and intentions of most Developed countries, Developing countries are the primary growing source of carbon emissions.  Refer to a post I wrote last year: “Can Developed Countries Reduce Future World Carbon Emissions?”.  The obvious answer is ‘highly unlikely’.  Developing countries and their growing populations and standards of living are readily overwhelming all the best efforts of Develop countries.  Perhaps the question is not one of ‘morality’ but one of uncontrollable population growth?

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Simon Donner on Mar 12, 2013



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Simon Donner on Mar 12, 2013

John - If China's the reason that emissions "caught up" to the previous growth trajectory after the crisis, and the emissions by country data suggests as much, then is the question uncontrollable population growth? China is one country where population growth is effectively controlled. Rising standard of living is certainly also a driver of emissions growth


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John Miller on Mar 12, 2013

Simon, yes China is one of the few nations to legally limit birth rates since the late 1970’s.  While their population is still growing (at a much slower rate, but still somewhat higher than average Developed countries), their current strategy of growing the economy and increasing the average resident’s standards of living is clearly the primary driver for their hugely increasing fossil fuels consumption.  Like all Developing countries, China’s growth strategy is to utilize the cheapest energy sources, which as you are aware is coal.  The world carbon emission impact problem statement will very likely continue growing at increasing rates in the coming years and decades as China continues to grow their economy at record world rates, and as other Developing countries around the world (India, South Korea, Brazil, etc.) follow China’s growth and expansion model.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Mar 12, 2013

I am sympathetic to the Developing Countries because their population growth is not as transparently understood as we think. For starters, nations with low mechanization, non-existent social security, and poor healthcare delivery make up  for these deficits with greater manpower and larger families. It's a simple matter of survival.

What is needed is What Bill Gates termed as an energy miracle. We desperately need an affordable way to supplant CO2 producing energy sources,  a" Carrot" approach instead of the "Stick". 

The developing countries will produce fewer offspring and lower population growth as their standards of living improve.

One reason why the Renewables Thrust is a pipe dream that's doomed to fail is because it just can't work for the planet as a whole. We need cheap pluggin replacement for coal that the Third World can use, and Renewables just don't fit that bill, or at least I haven't seen any that seriously fits.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Mar 12, 2013

Paul, you are correct that birth rates are most often a matter of survival for Developing countries.  Even Developed countries had much higher birth rates during their early development days a 100+ years ago.  Statistically rural economies lead to increased birth rates and family sizes in order for the families to support themselves and their aging family members.  As nations transform from rural-to-urban societies, the need or incentive for larger families declines leading to less than half the previous rural economy birthrate levels.  Until Developing countries make this transition and/or cheap non-coal energy sources become available for all populations, the need for higher carbon intensity energy sources will likely continue.

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