Carbon Emissions Stopped Growing?

In 2014, global carbon dioxide emissions from energy production stopped growing!

At least, that’s what preliminary data from the International Energy Agency say. It seems the big difference is China. The Chinese made more electricity from renewable sources, such as hydropower, solar and wind, and burned less coal.

In fact, a report by Greenpeace says that from April 2014 to April 2015, China’s carbon emissions dropped by an amount equal to the entire carbon emissions of the United Kingdom!

I want to check this, because it would be wonderful if true: a 5% drop. They say that if this trend continues, China will close out 2015 with the biggest reduction in CO2 emissions every recorded by a single country.

The International Energy Agency also credits Europe’s improved attempts to cut carbon emissions for the turnaround. In the US, carbon emissions has basically been dropping since 2006—with a big drop in 2009 due to the economic collapse, a partial bounce-back in 2010, but a general downward trend.

In the last 40 years, there have only been 3 times in which emissions stood still or fell compared to the previous year, all during global economic crises: the early 1980’s, 1992, and 2009. In 2014, however, the global economy expanded by 3%.

So, the tide may be turning! But please remember: while carbon emissions may start dropping, they’re still huge. The amount of the CO2 in the air shot above 400 parts per million in March this year. As Erika Podest of NASA put it:

CO2 concentrations haven’t been this high in millions of years. Even more alarming is the rate of increase in the last five decades and the fact that CO2 stays in the atmosphere for hundreds or thousands of years. This milestone is a wake up call that our actions in response to climate change need to match the persistent rise in CO2. Climate change is a threat to life on Earth and we can no longer afford to be spectators.

Here is the announcement by the International Energy Agency:

Global energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide stalled in 2014, IEA, 13 March 2015.

Their full report on this subject will come out on 15 June 2015. Here is the report by Greenpeace EnergyDesk:

China coal use falls: CO2 reduction this year could equal UK total emissions over same period, Greenpeace EnergyDesk.

I trust them less than the IEA when it comes to using statistics correctly, but someone should be able to verify their claims if true.

31 Responses to Carbon Emissions Stopped Growing?

  1. Richard Mallett says:

    Why is it bad that CO2 is above 400 ppm at a time when global temperatures are stable, and crop production (according to the FAO) is increasing ?

    • John Baez says:

      This is a fairly dull topic, since it’s been discussed many times, but okay:

      1) The real danger lies not in the present, but in the future. If we keep putting out CO2 into the atmosphere at the current rate, this near-vertical trend will continue:

      You can see several ice ages here — or technically, ‘glacial periods’. Carbon dioxide concentration and temperature go hand in hand, probably due to some feedback mechanisms that make each influence the other. But the scary part is the vertical line on the right where the carbon dioxide shoots up from 290 to 390 parts per million (and now 400) — instantaneously from a geological point of view, and to levels not seen for a long time. Species, including us, can adapt to slow climate changes—but we’re trying a radical experiment here.

      2) Global temperatures aren’t stable. According to NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Science:

      NASA, NOAA Find 2014 Warmest Year in Modern Record

      Posted Jan. 16, 2015

      The year 2014 ranks as Earth’s warmest since 1880, according to two separate analyses by NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists.

      The year 2014 now ranks as the warmest on record since 1880, according to an analysis by NASA scientists.

      The 10 warmest years in the instrumental record, with the exception of 1998, have now occurred since 2000. This trend continues a long-term warming of the planet, according to an analysis of surface temperature measurements by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS) in New York.

      In an independent analysis of the raw data, also released Friday, NOAA scientists also found 2014 to be the warmest on record.

      • Richard Mallett says:

        Yes, we’re trying a radical experiment here, and so far it’s turning out pretty well. The dire predictions of more extremes of weather have so far not materialised. China, India and the USA are reducing their carbon emissions, so it may be that there will be a plateau at about 400 ppm, or maybe not. We will have to wait and see.

        Yes, I know that 2014 was the warmest year by 0.08 C, less than the measurement error. Temperatures have increased or decreased, or stayed much the same, while CO2 has continued to increase, so the correlation is very poor.

        • John Baez says:

          Richard Mallet wrote:

          The dire predictions of more extremes of weather have so far not materialised

          I guess you don’t live in:



          the Southern United States and Mexico,


          Europe (where 70,000 people died in a heat wave),

          etcetera. (Click links for details on individual disasters.)

        • Richard Mallett says:

          Or in countries like Russia and Eastern Europe, where thousands die of cold because they can’t afford heating.

        • Richard Mallett says:

          There seems to be very little (and conflicting) evidence on mortality rates due to heat and cold.

          Regarding heat waves, the only long term data that I could find is from which shows a massive peak in the US annual heat wave index in1936 at about 1.3, and now it’s at about 0.1. There was a massive peak in cold temperatures in 1979 (same page).

        • Nick Barnes says:

          First: There will not be a plateau at about 400 ppm. Atmospheric CO2 is rising at a little over 2 ppm per year. Even if emissions plateau (at a little over 30 GT CO2 per year), atmospheric CO2 concentrations will continue to rise (as far more is emitted into the atmosphere than is absorbed – by the oceans, for instance). For concentrations to plateau any time soon, there would have to be a sudden and near-total collapse of fossil fuel use.

          Secondly, temperatures are well-correlated with atmospheric CO2 concentration, over climatologically significant timescales. Look it up.

        • Richard Mallett says:

          I have looked at Law Dome CO2 versus global temperature.

          The correlation with the average of NOAA NCDC, NASA GISS and HadCRUT4 to 2004 (the latest I could find) is r^2=0.789.

          The correlation of CO2 growth rate with the average global temperature is r^2=0.5737.

          I would not expect the correlation to have increased since then, with temperatures stablising.

        • climatecode says:

          First: where did you get Law Dome CO2 numbers for a date anything like as recent as 2004? The most recent Law Dome CO2 number I’ve seen is from 1978. Law Dome is good back to maybe 2000 BP; before that one can use Vostok, after that there is For more recent CO2 one should consider the Keeling numbers. It seems to me that you are trolling.

          Temperatures have not stabilised.

        • Richard Mallett says:

          The Law Dome data comes from

          The linear trend in global temperature from 1998 to 2014 in degrees C per century is :-

          +0.83 C (NASA GISS)
          +0.62 C (HadCRUT4)
          +0.56 C (NOAA NCDC)

          This is much more stable than the period from 1976 to 1998.

        • Richard,

          Hint, ENSO — look into it.

        • Richard Mallett says:

          I have; and AMO and PDO, and solar cycles, which are set to trend downwards over the next few decades. (ENSO is less predictable – last year’s El Nino failed to materialise)

        • Richard, The fact that ENSO is not as predictable as you would like has nothing to do with the fact that it can compensate a warming signal with a transient cooling trend.

        • Richard Mallett says:

          So how does this ability of ENSO to ‘compensate a warming signal with a transient cooling trend’ affect the lack of correlation of CO2 with temperature since 1880, especially when ENSO causes warm (El Nino) and cold (La Nina) sea surface temperatures, and these have been pretty equal since 1880 ?

        • John Baez says:

          Lack of correlation between CO2 concentration and temperature? The correlation is actually very good. Clearly there’s a lot of short-term fluctuations in global temperature due to volcanoes, the El Niño Southern Oscillation, Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation and other phenomena. But the gorilla in the room is CO2:

          Click for details. Also see this:

          • Robert Rohde, Richard A. Muller, Robert Jacobsen, Elizabeth Muller, Saul Perlmutter, Arthur Rosenfeld, Jonathan Wurtele, Donald Groom and Charlotte Wickham, A new estimate of the average earth surface land temperature spanning 1753 to 2011, Geoinformatics and Geostatics: an Overview 1 (2012).

          The downward spikes are explained nicely by volcanic activity. For example, you can see the 1815 eruption of Tambora in Indonesia, which blanketed the atmosphere with ash. 1816 was called The Year Without a Summer: frost and snow were reported in June and July in both New England and Northern Europe! Average global temperatures dropped 0.4–0.7 °C, resulting in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere. Similarly, the dip in 1783-1785 seems to be to due to Grímsvötn in Iceland.

          (Carbon dioxide goes up a tiny bit in volcanic eruptions, but that’s mostly irrelevant. It’s the ash and sulfur dioxide, forming sulfuric acid droplets that help block incoming sunlight, that really matter for volcanoes!)

          It’s worth noting that they get their best fit if each doubling of carbon dioxide concentration causes a 3.1 ± 0.3°C increase in land temperature. This is consistent with the 2007 IPCC report’s estimate of a 3 ± 1.5°C warming for land plus oceans when carbon dioxide doubles. This quantity is called climate sensitivity, and determining it is very important.

          They also get their best fit if each extra 100 gigatonnes of atmospheric sulfates (from volcanoes) cause 1.5 ± 0.5°C of cooling.

          They also look at the left-over temperature variations that are not explained by this simple model: 3.1°C of warming with each doubling of carbon dioxide, and 1.5°C of cooling for each extra 100 gigatonnes of atmospheric sulfates. Here’s what they get:

          The left-over temperature variations, or ‘residuals’, are shown in black, with error bars in gray. On top is the annual data, on bottom you see a 10-year moving average. The red line is an index of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, a fluctuation in the sea surface temperature in the North Atlantic Ocean with a rough ‘period’ of 70 years.

        • Richard Mallett says:

          Thank you for the Rohde et al (2012) reference – that is most interesting. Unfortunately, neither of your links work – do you know how I can get a copy of the paper and / or the data ?

        • domenico says:

          It is interesting: an eruption change surely the Earth temperature (like in the 1816), because of a gas emission (or ashes), but the mankind (according to someone) does not change the temperature with the carbon dioxide emission (do equivalent causes produce different effects?).

        • Richard Mallett says:

          I was only going on what the figures were telling me – CO2 started to increase dramatically in 1944, for example, while the linear trend in global temperatures in degrees C per century from 1944 to 1976 was :-

          +0.09 C (NASA GISS)
          -0.35 C (HadCRUT4)
          +0.09 C (NOAA NCDC)

          It was only from 1976 to 1998 that temperatures started to rise rapidly; then they slowed right down again, despite CO2 continuing to increase.

        • John Baez says:

          Richard wrote:

          Thank you for the Rohde et al (2012) reference – that is most interesting. Unfortunately, neither of your links work – do you know how I can get a copy of the paper and / or the data ?

          I fixed the link: the paper is here.

        • Richard Mallett says:

          Many thanks for that.

        • Richard Mallett says:

          Thanks again for the link to the paper. I have also noticed the correlation between global temperatures and the AMO. The correlation between global temperatures and CO2 concentrations seems to hold up less well for the 20th. century cooling (circa 1900-1910 and 1940-1950) and stasis (circa 1950-1970) periods.

        • domenico says:

          I would like to know, by a climate skeptic, what is the deadly limit of carbon dioxide concentration for the mankind?
          I can accept the dangerous value for the adults, or for ocean acidification (but we don’t need fishes), or for high temperature; I can accept (arguments of type) that the mankind is good, and cannot lead to its destruction (so that there have been no collapses of good civilization), so that I assume that the carbon dioxide concentration increase could be due to a volcanic eruption (evil event); so that for once, can a climate skeptic give me a minimum value of the concentration of carbon dioxide lethal for the mankind?

        • Richard Mallett says:

          Good question. I have never heard a figure quoted, but people who grow crops inside green houses add carbon dioxide to 1000 ppm, for example.

          I know that some of the WWII concentration camps have cylinders of CO2 (not CO) and imply that these were used to kill people.

    • nad says:

      The red line is an index of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, a fluctuation in the sea surface temperature in the North Atlantic Ocean with a rough ‘period’ of 70 years.

      Looks a bit as if the AMO may eventually be correlated with the Chandler wobble phase flip. ?

  2. David Kronenfeld says:

    wow !

  3. John Baez says:

    Over on G+, Edward Morbius wrote:

    Interesting. Andreas Schou brought up Greenpeace’s claims in a post of his own, misrepresenting, I thought Greenpeace’s actual message. I’ve addressed that in a re-share of his original (you can find his via my post). I’m actually interested in tracking down harder numbers on just how renewables (or nuclear) might have contributed.

    I’m still looking for the most current statistics, but ran across some detailed information from Energy Collective and US EIA, neither of whom at last check identify as Greenpeace.

    US EIA, May 14, 2015 China update:

    As of 2013, China’s installed electrical capacity was (terawatt-hour):

    Thermal 862 69%
    Hydro 280 23%
    Nuclear 14 1%
    Wind 75 6%
    Solar 13 1%
    Total 1244

    Wind is variously given as 6% (EC) and 7% (EIA quoting Reuters) of the total.

    From EIA:

    Nuclear: China generated 106 TWh of nuclear power in 2013, making up only 2% of total net generation. However, the country rapidly expanded its nuclear capacity in the past few years, which will likely boost nuclear generation in the next few years. China’s net installed nuclear capacity was more than 23 GW as of April 2015 after the country added ten reactors with more than 10 GW since the beginning of 2013.

    Wind: The NEA reported that on-grid capacity rose to 96 GW in 2014, indicating infrastructure development is rapidly occurring. As part of its renewable energy targets, the NDRC aims to increase wind capacity to 200 GW by the end of 2020.

    Solar: China is also aggressively investing in solar power and hopes to increase capacity from 15 GW at the end of 2013 to 100 GW by the end of 2020.

    Natural gas expansion may also be contributing to lower coal use and overall carbon emissions.

    (More detailed quotes in my post above, plus additional references.)

    Adding up some of those with changes from 2013:

    Nuclear added 1% to capacity.
    Wind added 2% to capacity
    Solar’s hard to say but let’s say 15 GW (less than wind), or 1.5%.

    That’s a 4.5% boost in carbon-free generation, 3.5% of which is renewables.

    Another point worth noting is that China makes considerable use of coal for non-generating uses, including residential space heat. That could show up in coal consumption without affecting generating statistics as much.

    Greenpeace’s report also gives a 6.6% increase in gas (to 5.5% of total energy) and 4% in oil (to 17.2%).

    Oh, and the chart at the bottom gives growth in non-coal power generation. About 2/3 is hydropower capacity growth and good hydro conditions (contradicting other information I’d cited earlier).

    The pie chart breaks down to the following, and given that nuclear’s growth accounts to 1% of total capacity, I think we can tot up how much non-coal growth is shown:

    Hydropower capacity: 42.8% (7.4% total)
    Hydropower conditions: 25.6% (4.4% total)
    Wind: 6.6% (1.1% total)
    Solar: 5.8% (1% total)
    Nuclear: 5.8% (1% total)
    Gas/biomass/waste: 13.2% (2.3% total)

    68% hydro expansion and conditions.

    And the total growth in non-coal generation was 17.2% of total power generation.

    Cut off nuclear and we’re left with 11.4% of existing capacity added in renewables (treating gas as renewable due to aggregation).

    Though yes, the share of actual added wind and solar remains small: 2% total.

    I’m assuming Greenpeace’s values are accurate, obviously if they’re not, the conclusions would change.

  4. John Baez says:

    Over on G+, Samuel Leuenberger wrote:

    Remember Edward Morbius, that all your figures showing a decrease are based on Q1 data, a simple increase in China economic activity will immediatelly cancel it, notwithstanding any “statistical adjustment” like China likes to do.

    Also keep in mind that Thermal energy production represent only 50% of China’s use of coal. Concrete and Steel being the major two other consumers and are extremely sensitive to economic activity.

    As for Greenpeace figures, their pie chart shows an increase of hydro, nuclear, wind, solar totaling 157TWh [1] when projections for China electricity production in 2014 were 5331 TWh (EIA). This would be 3% and interestingly close to the decrease of thermal production of 2.8% for Q1 (World Coal) [2]. That’s the good news.

    Where Andreas Schou is right however, is when Greenpeace is as usual touting Solar and Wind as a contributor to this decrease when we see that it is mostly due to economic slowdown and that the additional production from these two energy source account for 0.6% (32TWh) of the annual production in 2014.

    To summarise, the positive shift in the Chinese energy mix towards less coal is at this time too marginal and far too susceptible to economic growth to say that we are at last going in the right direction. Also, to put things in perspective remember that last year China plugged 47GW of coal plant capacity to their grid…

    [1] I am of course excluding gas and waste burning, as well as seasonnal variations in hydro power.

  5. John Baez says:

    Over on G+, Edward Morbius wrote:

    Samuel Leuenberger – Thanks, you’ve uncovered a couple of my errors in interpreting Greenpeace’s less-than-clear data presentation.

    The label for the graph from which I took those numbers is “Breakdown of non-coal power generation growth in 2014”. Barring further information (which Greenpeace says is forthcoming), I interpret that as year-over-year data, not Q1 trends.

    I do agree that there’s not a whole lot of depth to the data presented, and that the possibility for restatement exists.

    Let’s look at those total again:

    Hydro capacity: 110 TWh
    Hydro conditions: 66 TWh
    Wind: 17 TWh
    Solar: 15 TWh
    Nuclear: 15 TWh
    Gas/bio/waste: 34 TWh

    Oh dear: TWh now GW nameplate as I’d got it above….

    So, taking your EIA value of 5,331 TWh total generation (608 GW sustained), then summing Greenpeace’s entire pie chart (you’d excluded only hydro conditions), the total is 4.8% of total generation (TWh, not GW capacity as I’d misstated above).

    That’s actually a lot more sensible than the 17% I’d come up with.

    John Baez: you’re going to want to update your blog post with that correction. [Done – JB.]

    On the messaging…

    I still maintain that Schou’s grossly misstating Greenpeace’s message, which as I’m getting tired of stating, starts with and reiterates the fall in overall economic activity. On that point he was and remains in error.

    Greenpeace’s presentation of actual quantitative data here is quite wanting. They’re not simply providing bottom-line numbers, their chart was poorly labeled (though I managed to mis-read the labeling that is present, on mouse-over, of quantities). We’re barraged with (nameplate) capacity, total generation, share of energy, coal imports, and percentage-of-growth breakdowns, but not, say, a table simply showing total generation by mode and year for the past several years.

    It’s not clear that there are any credibility issues with the actual data reported, however.

    The failure to clearly report on energy-related data is hardly specific to Greenpeace. It’s actually a major frustration of mine with virtually all energy-based coverage, most especially in media. Reporting organizations (e.g., EIA, IEA, and BP’s annual review, among others) tend to be better, though they’ve generally got much longer reporting lags (see my discussion of EIA data above).

    I’ve done a few detailed analyses, often substantively rebutting or demolishing claims, ranging from Solar Freaking Roadways and “Nautical Torque” to Boeing and the general prospect of biofuels, to thorium fuel projections, and “pavegen”.

    Why the general public, or technology reporters, or research organizations, are so entirely incapable of doing basic arithmetic is not only beyond me, but beyond annoying.

    Yes, the story mentions growth of wind deployments, which … are an all but negligible contribution. Yes, that’s misleading. It’s also distressingly common with all manner of green-boosterism reporting.

    Truth is that the bulk of renewables contribution was 1) increased hydro capacity ,a permanent boost, but with limited further upside as China’s all but tapped out its hydro potential, and 2) a fortuitous one-time favorable set of conditions for hydro overall. That’s not unlike stories relating that, say, Germany saw some new milestone high rate of renewables contribution for a day, which on examination is usually some confluence of low demand (weekend or holiday idling industry) and higher-than-normal solar and/or wind generation. Those peaks are incidental and, in the larger scheme largely irrelevant.

    What is relevant is that there is considerable upside potential for both wind and solar growth in China, and that total contribution from both is becoming more-than-incidental. How much further they can be scaled is a real concern, and I’ve no illusions that that won’t be hard, but I don’t see a whole lot of choice.

    There is nuclear, and that’s another option for growth, but given numerous concerns (fuel, waste, proliferation, advanced technologies), my strong sense is that it’s at best a helper / bridge option.

    China have been making increasingly loud noises about taking environmental issues seriously (far more than India’s much more disappointing behavior). And it’s possible that they’re serious. For all our sakes, and our descendants, if any, they’d better be.

    I agree that while this trend shift is promising, it’s just that: a promise. Not something to bank on, yet.

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