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The emissions rebound after the GFC: why greenhouse gases went up in 2010

Recessions are not the way to permanently cut greenhouse gas emissions. Global emissions surged during 2010, cancelling out the reductions from the global financial crisis (GFC). Emissions took off in…

Emissions spiked, thanks to more intensive energy use. Louis Vest

Recessions are not the way to permanently cut greenhouse gas emissions. Global emissions surged during 2010, cancelling out the reductions from the global financial crisis (GFC).

Emissions took off in 2010 as the global economy grew quickly in the rebound from the GFC. There was also an unusual increase in the amount of energy used for each dollar of GDP. More carbon intensive sources of energy were also used.

Emissions growth in 2011 and 2012 is likely to be more moderate, but still far above what is needed for effective climate change action.

2010 emissions

In a paper published this week in Nature Climate Change, we put the latest data under the microscope, expanding on analysis done by the Global Carbon Project.

We trace back the growth in carbon dioxide emissions – a massive 5.8% during 2010 compared to a long term average of 2.0% – to the growth rate in economic output, energy intensity (the ratio of energy used to GDP), and carbon intensity of energy (ratio of carbon dioxide to primary energy consumed).

In 2010, global energy demand grew faster than GDP, which is unusual. Over the last four decades this has only happened on four occasions. Apart from 1990, the effect was never as strong as it was in 2010. 1990 saw increasing global energy intensity because the Soviet Union’s economy collapsed faster than its use of energy.

Energy intensity rose in both OECD and non-OECD countries in 2010 (by 0.4% and 0.2% respectively). Likely explanations include relatively subdued fossil fuel prices – prices remained below 2008 levels during 2010 – and fiscal stimulus spending on energy-intensive activities such as construction.

The carbon intensity of energy fell in OECD countries over the decade as a result of a slow shift away from oil and coal and toward natural gas and renewables. In non-OECD countries it rose, as their use of coal increased. Globally, the carbon intensity of energy increased slightly over the decade.

If energy intensity and carbon intensity of energy in 2010 had fallen at their long-term average rates, then the 2010 GDP growth would have resulted in emissions growth of 3.7% instead of 5.8%.

Looking forward

Global carbon emissions growth is likely to slow in years to come. GDP growth already tailed off during 2011 and is expected to be lower still in 2012. Meanwhile, policy efforts to improve energy efficiency and shift to lower-carbon energy supply are likely to increasingly bear fruit.

Coupled with greater availability of natural gas and falling costs of renewable energy technologies, this should spell lower energy intensity and, in some countries, lower carbon intensity of energy.

For example, Australia’s emissions from energy and industry fell by 1% over the year to September 2011. This was mainly due to a reduction in Australia’s power use and less coal-fired electricity generation.

The ongoing recovery of hydroelectric generation after the drought (up by 10% on 2010), a significant increase in other renewable generation (up by 29%), and energy savings all contributed to the outcome.

While the 2010 emissions surge is likely to have been a one-off, cutting global emissions remains an enormous challenge. The underlying momentum is for strong emissions growth, particularly in developing countries. Energy efficiency will need to be improved at an unprecedented rate, and zero-carbon energy sources deployed faster.

China, in many respects, is leading the way. But much stronger policy action is needed in just about all countries.

Join the conversation

22 Comments sorted by

  1. Timothy Curtin

    Economic adviser

    Hi

    OK so far as you go, but why do you not go on from this

    "We trace back the growth in carbon dioxide emissions – a massive 5.8% during 2010 compared to a long term average of 2.0% – to the growth rate in economic output, energy intensity (the ratio of energy used to GDP), and carbon intensity of energy (ratio of carbon dioxide to primary energy consumed)."

    to discuss the growth in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 in 2010 over 2009, which was 0.62%?

    According to the physics it is the latter that matters, not emissions growth per se. Actually the growth of atmospheric CO2 since 2000 has been only 0.3% p.a. despite emissions growth of over 3% p.a.

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Timothy Curtin

      Tim you are incorrect, again. You are also neglecting the big sink of CO2 that is the ocean. It is soaking up most of the CO2 currently, but the emissions are still causing problems there.

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    2. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Timothy Curtin

      I saw the 2010 emissions rates yesterday: 33.5 Gt of CO2. Compared with 31.6 Gt in 2009 and 29.9 Gt in 2008. Australian emissions were 0.39 Gt in 2008 and 0.36 Gt in 2010.

      That is a lot of GHGs pumped into the atmosphere, especially since Australia is ranked in the top 20 for emissions and top 4 per capita. We have got to change our energy over to renewables now.

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  2. Timothy Curtin

    Economic adviser

    Tim Scanlon: you are wrong, check the time series data at Global Carbon Project, which show very clearly that terrestrial uptakes of atmospheric CO2 have been growing faster than the oceanic uptakes since 1959. As the terrestial uptakes have supported the faster growh of per capita food production since 1960 (FAO and Curtin 2009), they are of course course excoriated by anti-people like yourself and ALL warmists.

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Timothy Curtin

      Tim, you are wrong. You don't seem to understand the carbon cycling and atmospheric concentrations or you are deliberately trying to obfuscate the truth.

      Lets quote directly from the Global Carbon Project: "The annual growth of atmospheric CO2 was 1.8 ppm in 2008. The mean growth rate for the previous 20 years was about 1.5 ppm per year. The atmospheric CO2 concentration was 385 ppm in 2008, 38% higher than at the start of the industrial revolution (about 280 ppm in 1750). The present concentration…

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    2. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      I just had to add something. I decided to read the references used by T Curtin in his 2009 paper. The first one I read confirmed, in the abstract no less, exactly what I have been saying about the claims by T Curtin about plants and CO2.

      Kimball 1983: "Most of the studies were performed in greenhouses or growth chambers. Open fields might respond less than greenhouses or growth chambers to increased CO2 because nutrient levels in general world-wide agriculture are lower than those in the indoor studies" https://www.soils.org/publications/aj/abstracts/75/5/AJ0750050779

      Another clear example of T Curtin's deliberate obfuscation via cherry picking.

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  3. Timothy Curtin

    Economic adviser

    I hope the farmers that Tim Scanlon advises in WA get more accuracy from him than I do.

    First he claims that in “Climate Change and Food Production” paper I cited Kimball (1983). I never did. Then he claims that Kimball (1983) reported effects of CO2 enrichment in FACE (Free-air Concentration Enrichment) studies, but he never did, and could not, as FACE studies only began around 1985. The paper I did cite is Ainsworth et al (2005) and they do mention Kimball amongst others on the outcomes of ENCLOSED…

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Timothy Curtin

      You must think people are stupid T Curtin. You are blatantly wrong.

      I linked the Kimball paper, people can see for themselves. Here is the link to Curtin's presentation that references, on page 25, Kimball as one of the papers (just one example of his malfeasance). www.timcurtin.com/images/RMAP_Presentation_Final_May2010.pdf

      How about another paper you reference by Long et al. You use it to state CO2 is great for plants but then ignore the major caveat of the paper: "Finally, both environmental…

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    2. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      T Curtin has done it again folks. I looked up the Crimp and Howden (2008) study that he referred to (turns out I already had it as part of my APSIM work with Yield Prophet). He has deliberately cherry picked statements from the paper and ignoring the most important caveats of the paper.

      To quote: "With this in mind, increasing CO2 concentrations to 750 ppm alone (i.e. without changes in temperature and rainfall) resulted in increases in simulated yield within the current wheat belt by 18 to 36…

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  4. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    Thanks for this article.

    There's only one emissions reduction target that has any scientific validity, and that is 0 (zero) emissions as soon as economically feasible. The reason for this is that the maximum atmospheric CO2 concentration that is compatible with the climate of the Holocene Epoch (within which all human civilisation and recorded history) is 350 ppm.

    Atmospheric CO2 first exceeded 350 ppm in the late 1980's, since which time the severity of the climate crisis has only increased…

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    1. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to David Arthur

      "There's only one emissions reduction target that has any scientific validity, and that is 0 (zero) emissions as soon as economically feasible."

      Well, zero emissions from what sources? What's the definition of zero emissions?

      Obviously it doesn't include people breathing.

      Zero emissions from anthropogenic use of fossil fuels?

      Sure, that basically makes sense, let's do that - in the future, as soon as it's actually technologically and economically feasible. To be honest, though, absolutely…

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    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Luke Weston

      Thanks Luke, I'm glad you're onto the point about zero emissions of greenhouse gases. Perhaps I've not explained what I see as necessary as well as I should.

      1. Zero use of fossil fuels - we need to stop digging up sequestered carbon, and returning it to the atmosphere. We shouldn't be using the ocean as a dump for it either. This is because there already is too much carbon as CO2 in the {atmosphere + ocean} system, as I've tried to explain.

      Craig Venter, with the backing of MobilExxon…

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  5. Timothy Curtin

    Economic adviser

    TC to Burke & Scanlon 17 March 2012.

    Paul Burke: The rate of growth of atmospheric CO2 concentration dropped back to 0.46% in 2011, and you have still not answered my question as to why you and your co-authors never mentioned the rate of growth of that value since 2000, which is still only 0.3% p.a. I repeat, why not? again, why not? Or was it because that number is very boring for you-all, while emissions growth at 6% in 2010 sounds shocking?

    Tim Scanlon: You have refused to read my paper…

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    1. Paul Burke

      Fellow, Crawford School at Australian National University

      In reply to Timothy Curtin

      Hi Tim Curtin,

      The topic of the article is recent changes in global CO2 emissions from energy use, with a specific focus on 2010.

      Answer to your question: Yes, there are other important things to discuss also. Our article doesn't try to do everything - it sticks to the topic.

      But as I replied earlier it is interesting to indeed also note that 2010 saw a quicker-than-usual increase in the stock of CO2 in the atmosphere (not just in the inflow of emissions to the atmosphere from energy use). Thanks for the comments.

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  6. Timothy Curtin

    Economic adviser

    Tim Scanlon yet again: well I just checked my ANU Seminar of May 2010 and cannot see that I cited Kimball 1983 there, any more than I did in my published paper (Climate Change & Food Production 2009) on which that Seminar was based to which I had actually referred Scanlon.

    Clearly WA is not only in a different zone from the ACT, but another world! Scanlon blithely accuses me of "malfeasance", with full complicity of the Editors of The Conversation, in blatant disregard of their claimed but disregarded guidelines for posters (that evidently only apply to sceptics like me, not to climate jihadists like Scanlon).

    Be that as it may, I repeat my challenge in my previous post for Scanlon to publish his refutation of the CSIRO study by Crimp & Howden that Garnaut 2008 used to show how rising atmospheric CO2 actually raises wheat yields (cet.par.).

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Timothy Curtin

      Yes T Curtin, you have deliberately cherry picked statements out of the paper by Crimp and Howden (and the other papers I've mentioned). People don't have to take my word for it, they only have to read the papers that I have linked and the quotes I have reprinted here. T Curtin has been caught out. Again.

      I should point out that Crimp and Howden's paper and the Kimball paper are great work. I have read many of Howden's papers (spoke to him on the phone once) and know his APSIM work is excellent. It is unfortunate that T Curtin has sought to manipulate their findings in this way. The caveats directly discredit T Curtin's claims.

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  7. Timothy Curtin

    Economic adviser

    Scanlon, you are sailing close to the wind with your scurrilous accusations against me. I stand by my reporting of the CSIRO wheat yield projections under elevated CO2 for Katanning and Geraldton in Garnaut 2008 Table 6.5 - and reconfirm that I have never cited Kimball 1983, as he never conducted or reported the FACE experiments I do refer to.

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  8. Timothy Curtin

    Economic adviser

    Thanks to Paul Burke for his further comment. I agree that their article deals only with emissions, but what then is the point of it other than to imply rapidly growing emissions are a Bad Thing, even though as the GCP data show, on average since 1958 56% of anthro CO2 emissions have been absorbed by land and sea, chiefly in the form of increased NPP of phytoplankton at sea and of crops, trees, etc on land. Why is that bad? Why would anyone want to reduce that absorption, as you and your team are…

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    1. Paul Burke

      Fellow, Crawford School at Australian National University

      In reply to Timothy Curtin

      Tim Curtin, the expected net damages from CO2 emissions have been studied extensively.

      William Nordhaus has recently written a good article discussing this (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/mar/22/why-global-warming-skeptics-are-wrong/).

      The most relevant quote from this article in response to your “why reduce CO2?” question is: “The most recent thorough survey by the leading scholar in this field, Richard Tol, finds a wide range of damages, particularly if warming is greater than 2 degrees Centigrade. Major areas of concern are sea-level rise, more intense hurricanes, losses of species and ecosystems, acidification of the oceans, as well as threats to the natural and cultural heritage of the planet.”

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    2. David Stern

      Professor at Australian National University

      In reply to Timothy Curtin

      The point of our paper was to explain what was behind the unusually high increase in CO2 emissions in 2010 and to speculate/predict about what will happen next. All the other issues raised here are important but aren't the topic of our paper which only has 800 words.

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  9. Timothy Curtin

    Economic adviser

    Thanks to David Stern for his response, but it is a touch disingenuous! He says "The point of our paper was to explain what was behind the unusually high increase in CO2 emissions in 2010 and to speculate/predict about what will happen next".

    However the article ends by saying "...cutting global emissions remains an enormous challenge.... Energy efficiency will need to be improved at an unprecedented rate, and zero-carbon energy sources deployed faster."

    So in fact although the article begins…

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