Bad News About Bad News

First, the bad news, which you may have seen elsewhere.

CO2 emissions grew at an unprecented year-over-year rate of 6% last year. This was not, to put it mildly, what the Kyoto negotiators had in mind.

Most of the reports I saw, like this one in the Washington Post, quote geologist Greg Marland as well as the CDIAC PI responsible for the report, Tom Boden.

It is a “monster” increase that is unheard of, said Gregg Marland, a professor of geology at Appalachian State University, who has helped calculate Department of Energy figures in the past.

Extra pollution in China and the U.S. account for more than half the increase in emissions last year, Marland said.

“It’s a big jump,” said Tom Boden, director of the Energy Department’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center at Oak Ridge National Lab. “From an emissions standpoint, the global financial crisis seems to be over.”

Chris Field of Stanford University, head of one of the IPCC’s working groups, said the panel’s emissions scenarios are intended to be more accurate in the long term and are less so in earlier years. He said the question now among scientists is whether the future is the panel’s worst case scenario “or something more extreme.”

“Really dismaying,” Granger Morgan, head of the engineering and public policy department at Carnegie Mellon University, said of the new figures. “We are building up a horrible legacy for our children and grandchildren.”

So that’s the bad news.

The bad news about the bad news is that the news reporting is bad. This is material that deserves an occasional chart or graph. And here is one for context, that accompanied the CDIAC report. It took a modest amount of digging to come up with it.

Why is the press unwilling to put the actual facts into a form that actually contributes to understanding?

Note, too, the extent to which the story has changed in the past few years. Suddenly, the problem is not just about America; it is about China as well. Indeed, most of the past estimates did not have the amazing sustained growth of Chinese emissions included.

Note also that Chinese emissions are dirty, so that, as long as they are growing rapidly, they will mask the greenhouse forcing, which will cut in rapidly when Chinese growth stops. Meanwhile, the global mean temperature will not grow as fast as you might expect, but regional disruptions will nevertheless continue to accelerate. I saw one talk once that suggested that increased aerosol releases in China would lead to increased propensity for drought in the American west.

What the world looks like in fifty years and afterward depends sensitively on what happens now, and what is happening now is worse than the worst case scenarios we plotted out a few years back.Another picture the press would do well to impress upon the public is this one, which I found on an O’Reilly site of all places, in an article by Ramez Naam.

Of course, the lower picture shows only a small subset of the possible emissions trajectories, but it does indicate how what happens essentially forever depends sensitively on what happens now.

Do most Americans understand this? Most Chinese?

Photo: Smokestacks by Salim Virji (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Update: Here’s a graph showing the total figure, compared with IPCC scenarios, from Independent Media Centre Australia:


  1. Agreed. It seemsthat the study has been submitted for peer review, which may explain why no graphs are available

    Could you provide a link for that first graph? I did a modest amount of digging and couldn't find it.

    In some of the press reports, we read:

    But [John] Reilly and University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver found something good in recent emissions figures. The developed countries that ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gas limiting treaty have reduced their emissions overall since then and have achieved their goals of cutting emissions to about 8% below 1990 levels.

    This is only because the developed countries include the EIT (economies in transition) countries, mostly from European Eastern Bloc, that saw their economies crash after 1990, which surely can't be attributed to Kyoto. See the graphs at the bottom of this page, for example.

    The Kyoto Accord actually seems to have done very little, on average, to curb the emissions of the rich western countries. Certainly, nowhere near what is required.

  2. "Why is the press unwilling to put the actual facts into a form that actually contributes to understanding?"

    Because we have an advertiser supported press, and the duty of the press is to deliver audience to the advertisers. With that audience then advertisers can deliver their message.

    In such a ruthless world, the press and any news media outlet will adopt a bias toward their advertiser's messages, and even help deliver underlying messages. No media organization wants to restrict their life-blood.

    For instance, for as long as I can remember, the TV show "Meet the Press" has had heavy sponsorship from various petroleum industry sources; ExxonMobile, Conoco-Philips or the American Petroleum Institute consistently showcase commercial spots.

    I have never seen Meet the Press address energy policy, global warming, or carbon emissions.

  3. The country-by-country change is quite striking. Fossil carbon emissions declined from 2008 through 2010 in most industrialized countries, but increased in most emerging economies, including China, India and Indonesia. Inia is #3 in fossil fuel CO2 emissions in 2010, behind China and the US. The world is changing.

  4. Updated November 6 with another graph, more closely matched to the story text.

    If anyone knows of any mass media that reported this story in any way proportionate to its importance I would be interested to know about it.

  5. Andy Skuce: it's also because there's been a great deal of carbon outsourcing to China and other places. The US has also outsourced a lot of carbon to South America, and Europe has done the same, moving much of it east - either close, to Eastern Europe, or to China and South East Asia. Straightfoward measures of country-wise carbon intensity are useless. We need to find a way to provide the surveillance necessary to build genuinely effective policy.

    (Surveillance is the right word: the IMF uses it too - surveillance needed if there's any chance of IMF policies being effective, monitorable, accountable. Whether they succeed or have the right policy framework in the first place is another matter, of course...)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.