(Below is something I wrote in the last few days)
In early December it was reported in the media that preliminarily CO2 emissions for 2012 will be up about 2.6%. That follows increases of ~5.8% in 2010 and ~2.9% in 2011. Figure 1 is a graph of global CO2 emissions since 1900.
Figure 1: CO2 emissions from 1900 to 2012
Emissions in 2012 were ~18.2 times higher than that of 1900 and about 59% higher than in 1990.
The rapid rise in global CO2 emissions in recent years is largely due to rapidly increasing emissions from China and India. There have been relatively minor emission declines in Europe and the U.S. but those emission declines have been overwhelmed by increasing emissions from China and India.
The emission declines in the U.S. can be attributed to a number of reasons:
1). A significant transfer of manufacturing to other countries, particularly China
2). Economic problems in the U.S.
3). The increased cost of oil and oil distillates that have caused motor vehicle miles driven to go down and to force a shift to more efficient vehicles
4). Very mild winters in recent years that have reduced heating needs
Increasingly, climate scientists are expressing their concerns of catastrophic warming if something serious isn’t done very soon. In late November I read an interview of an administrator from the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research. He basically said we needed to globally reduce CO2 emissions by 10%/year for many years and start immediately. That isn’t going to happen.
If anything, I expect CO2 emissions to increase over the next 10 years. China won’t increase its emissions as quickly as in the recent past but I expect other countries to increase their emissions reasonably rapidly. There are many millions of people living in developing countries that want to live like Americans. That requires consuming lots of fossil fuels.
It’s appealing to think that we can run the American enterprise with renewable energy sources and everything would be fine but even with the maximum use of these sources, we would still require lots of fossil fuels. Some economists have calculated that if it costs X dollars to produce say 2% of our energy supply from renewable sources then if we multiple that cost by 49 we can get the total cost of running our enterprise with only renewable energy.
The problem is that from a practical perspective, renewable energy sources have limitations. One example is in terms of motor vehicles. Many of the applications that people use motor vehicles for require considerable power. Electric vehicles will always be limited in terms of power so a significant percentage of people would not buy electric vehicles based upon their desire for power in their motor vehicle.
Another problem is that the price of electric vehicles has historically been considerably higher than distillate powered vehicles and if anything that has probably grown worse because of the exotic materials used in modern electric vehicles to improve their efficiency. Most Americans aren’t going to buy electric vehicles based upon the high price of the vehicles.
A second example involves electrical generation. If we rely on wind power, what do we do when the wind isn’t blowing? Since wind velocity can change quickly and the power output from a wind generator is a cubic function of wind velocity, any backup must be able to respond immediately.
One option is to build a large overcapacity and a large storage system but that is very expensive. The alternative is to have a fossil fuel based power system on reserve, which is what is typically done. But if the backup has to be ready at a moment’s notice, it has to be running continuously and there is not a lot of reduction in CO2 emissions.
One aspect of global warming few people recognize is that most of the heat trapped by increasing greenhouse gas concentrations goes into the oceans (Figure 2), about 93%. Because of thermal inertia, even if human greenhouse gas emissions stopped today, the global temperature would continue rising until thermal equilibrium was reached at some point in the distant future.
We will test the premises that business-as-usual will have catastrophic effects. My primary concern is that major agricultural areas, such as the central U.S., will become considerably hotter and dryer. If that is the case, there could be a significant negative effect upon agriculture.
Figure 2: Earth’s total heat content anamaly