Worldwide Carbon Emissions No Longer Dropping — Is Anyone Surprised?

In our SuperFreakonomics chapter about global warming, a central argument was that greenhouse-gas emissions (and pollution in general) are an externality, and it is inherently difficult to control and/or price externalities. So, while it might seem sensible to encourage fewer emissions by taxation or price controls — or international agreements — the reality is complicated:

Besides the obvious obstacles — like determining the right size of the tax and getting someone to collect it — there’s the fact that greenhouse gases do not adhere to national boundaries. The earth’s atmosphere is in constant, complex motion, which means that your emissions become mine and mine yours. Thus, global warming.

If, say, Australia decided overnight to eliminate its carbon emissions, that fine nation wouldn’t enjoy the benefits of its costly and painful behavior unless everyone else joined in. Nor does one nation have the right to tell another what to do. The United States has in recent years sporadically attempted to lower its emissions. But when it leans on China or India to do the same, those countries can hardly be blamed for saying, Hey, you got to free-ride your way to industrial superpowerdom, so why shouldn’t we?

This argument was disliked by some people. They seemed to believe that it was blasphemous to speak aloud the reality of the problem — akin to saying that climate change is categorically not worth thinking about, and certainly not worth worrying about.

But in fact we were making a different argument: if you want to solve a problem, the best first step is to understand the problem in realistic terms rather than defaulting to magical thinking.

This is all precursor to the recent news that, as the Times puts it, “Carbon Emissions Show Biggest Jump Ever Recorded“:

Global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning jumped by the largest amount on record last year, upending the notion that the brief decline during the recession might persist through the recovery.

Emissions rose 5.9 percent in 2010, according to an analysis released Sunday by the Global Carbon Project, an international collaboration of scientists tracking the numbers. Scientists with the group said the increase, a half-billion extra tons of carbon pumped into the air, was almost certainly the largest absolute jump in any year since the Industrial Revolution, and the largest percentage increase since 2003.

The increase solidified a trend of ever-rising emissions that scientists fear will make it difficult, if not impossible, to forestall severe climate change in coming decades.

The researchers said the high growth rate reflected a bounce-back from the 1.4 percent drop in emissions in 2009, the year the recession had its biggest impact.

Global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning jumped by 5.9 percent in 2010, upending the notion that a brief decline during the recession might persist.

Is anyone truly surprised by this?

What you do with this information, of course, depends strongly on what you already think about global warming, and what kind of people you hang out with.

You may be surprised, meanwhile, to learn that China, is apparently interested in talking about binding emissions cuts. From the Wall Street Journal:

Speaking to reporters Monday, the country’s chief negotiator in Durban, Xie Zhenhua, said major economies including China should be legally obligated to curb greenhouse gas emissions after 2020.

“We accept a legally binding arrangement,” he said.

Mr. Xie, however, said China would agree to binding cuts only if the U.S. and other powerful nations take aggressive steps in the next decade to address climate change and some key negotiators wondered whether China was throwing down the gauntlet to shift pressure on to Western countries to address climate change.

Nevertheless, Mr. Xie’s comments were interpreted as a significant shift in China’s earlier position of rejecting binding targets—except in the unspecified future.

Officials said they would need to clarify Beijing’s intentions in private meetings Tuesday with Mr. Xie. For the U.S. to agree to a binding deal, China would have to be ready to accept stringent cuts alongside the U.S., according to Todd Stern, the chief U.S. negotiator in climate talks.

“No trap doors, no Swiss cheese,” he said.

Randall Hoven

Let's see a graph over time. I hate it when someone breathlessly reports on a single data point (change over one year, in this case). I'd also like to see where the carbon comes from. Like, is the latest change due mostly to China?

The US, for example, was on an 8-year downward trend when China was on a similar upward trend. See here:

Not to mention, all these figures come from measurements of fossil fuel use, not true levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. As you might know, trees in North America might very well be taking more CO2 out of the atmosphere than industry puts in.


[quote]As you might know, trees in North America might very well be taking more CO2 out of the atmosphere than industry puts in.[unquote]


Be that as it may (or not), who is going to produce the oxygen that you and I breath?


Um... "who" produced the oxygen that you've breathed to date?


First, I think the notion of US freeriding its way to industrial powerdom is slightly skewed. Freeriding connotes intentional avoidance of cost yet most of US energy infrastructure was developed during a time when the idea of human caused climate change was not a concern to anyone.
Second, China might benefit in the long run by avoiding construction of high carbon emission energy infrastructure. One could make the case that the US is currently experiencing network effects or "lock-in" to existing "dirty" technology as adoption of new cleaner technologies faces high conversion costs. Example: Natural gas is cleaner, cheaper, and more abundant domestically than Gasoline. However, we don't have natural gas cars in any numbers because there is no network of natural gas filling stations. And, we don't convert the large network of gas stations to natural gas because there are no significant numbers of natural gas burning vehicles on the road.



Why should reducing CO2 emissions be "costly and painful"? (Granted that an overnight elimination is at best impractical, if not actually impossible.) Given that government must collect taxes on something, a revenue-neutral CO2 tax is no more costly or painful than a sales tax or VAT. If the tax prompts people to change their behavior, say by buying an efficient vehicle, or even an EV or PHEV, instead of a guzzler, it can even save them money.

Likewise, investment in new, more efficient plants saves money in the long run. Reduction of emissions from automobiles & coal-fired power plants improves health, while keeping a number of mountains from becoming strip mines.


I am surprised China had not thought about this sooner. It's a huge way to put economic pressure on the US (and to a lesser extent, the EU). It would seem that China, while being heavily supplied with coal would be less invested in Coal and other fossil feuls because it hasn't fully industrialized the nation.

While it would be objectively more costly to use techonolgies which are carbon neutral or better (Wind, Solar, etc.) it also costs China less because China may not have to replace coal plants yet.

On the other hand, the US is largely invested in coal and gas fired power plants, which increases the opportunity cost of switching to a different type of power. In essence, it would cost the US more money to reduce emissions per capita than it would China, potentially.

Then, to further add to the equation, China is a much much more densely populated country, which adds a significant incentive in China to move toward more clean technologies. In essence, they would gain in terms of health and redeuced health care costs, which are likely a concern given the socialized healthcare system.

These are concerns that the US has already more or less worked very hard to deal with by adding additional tech to existing coal fire power plants, which also increased their cost.

I know, I know, "sunk cost fallacy" but I think it would likely be more beneficial to China to try to bind the US to reduce emissions, than it would be the other way around.



It is about inveconvenience. It has nothing to do with the scientists message being hard to get. people will certainly get it with or without simplification when going green becomes convenient. A bit like music piracy being way easier than doing the right thing. And people want to do the right thing if it wast going to be too disruptive to their everyday routines. Scientists can't change people's hearts. It is about time someone has helped make echo friendliness human friendly.

Randall Hoven

"Be that as it may (or not), who is going to produce the oxygen that you and I breath?"

Those same trees, every plant, fruit and vegetable on earth, ocean plankton plants, etc. Same things producing oxygen as now. (Mostly oceans.)

Do you have some measurements that say oxygen is running low? Not even the climate alarmists are claiming that.


I'm not quite sure what the point of this article is.

I don't think anyone in the science/environmental camp is under the illusion that the major emitters are doing anything close to what they should be doing. In fact the general message coming from science blogs and articles over the year or two is one of despair: that we've well and truly passed the point where we "save the world from climate change".

The difference in opinion is whether it is hypothetically feasible at all to introduce any sort of emission cuts. Many environmentalist and scientist have been hopeful that the world would get its act together, and in fact we have seen some countries making progress.

Geo-engineering supporters such as yourself (and others) have typically rested on the argument that substantial emission cuts are infeasible. Now, you may be right, you may be wrong, but particularly when you couple it with the neverending stream of attacks on the integrity of climate scientists (as this blog is wont to do), the prediction simply becomes self-fulfilling. It's hardly the scientists' or environmentalists' fault that a large swathe of the world media has stubbornly refused to accept any possibility of any carbon emission reductions ever occuring, in order, it seems, to enjoy petty ideological point-scoring.

At this stage we've almost baked in the 2050/2 degrees scenario. The thing is, barring some future technology that allows us to suck massive amounts of carbon out of the air, emissions will have to peak - and they will probably have to peak within this century - i.e. within the lifetime of people alive today. Because either we will start running out of fossil fuels, or the world will simply become very very hot.



I have asked this question on here before and not gotten an answer, so I am hoping that you or someone else reading this will give me the answer: Assuming the 2050/2 degrees scenario that you mention comes to pass, what exactly will that mean? I mean, what will the real world effects be other than 2 degrees warmer? I've never really gotten a satisfactory answer to that question.

Russell H

DaveyNC, there is a continuum of understanding and effect here.
- we are sure CO2 emissions are rising, that's easily measured
- we are less sure what the impact of that will be in terms of temperature increases but the great majority of climate science point to ice melting, storm intensity, high temperature weather events, less frequent cold weather events and the like
- we are less sure again on how that will impact plants, birds, insects, animals and coral reefs but observations show that rapid changes in habitat mean stress and poorer outcomes
- and finally we are less sure about how all that will impact on ourselves.

But it's also right to think that along with these increasing uncertainties, the scale of the impact is also growing. If, for example, climate change causes repeated failure of Asia's rice crops are we prepared for the consequences? We could probably cope with a million people needing to relocate, but what happens if 100 million people need to find a new home? What if it's 500 million?


Joel Upchurch

The idiocy of Australia is hardly worth speaking of. The want to tax their domestic emissions while exporting huge amounts of coal to China.

The Chinese proposal makes perfectly good sense. To them. They are in a massive program to increase their production of nuclear power. They should have enough infrastructure by 2020 to start mass producing nuclear power plants. If binding emission limits are imposed, then they will have a large and increasing competitive advantage over countries that are still trapped with fossil fuels. The Chinese will be able to continue to increase their power production, while other countries will be limited in their electricity production by carbon emission limits.


There seems to be a bit of an "Us vs them" theme here with China, and I'm not so sure it's warranted. China is already investing in technology to reduce carbon output (nuclear power) and is prepared to commit to legal requirements despite the fact that their citizens are buying more cars and bigger houses. They'd have to replace dirty tech with clean tech at a frenetic pace to keep up with improvements in per capita buying power and increasing levels of consumerism.

Meanwhile in North America, we can replace coal/gas power plants and continue doing R&D on non-gas cars, and we'll reduce emissions without nearly the economic stress everyone's so worried about. Nuclear power is pretty much as inexpensive as coal over the long run, and while plug-in hybrids will never be as cheap as a plain gas auto, powering them using electricity for 90% of commutes will help.

Olli M

According to wikipedia, China can triple its CO2 emissions before it's at the same level than the us. The simple math seems to be to determine maximum desired global emissions, divide by world population => co2 emission cap per capita for every country. What logical reason is there to determine the cap based on current emissions?

Randall Hoven

Few commenters, and even the article, mention any stinking numbers -- other than emissions went up in the last year. The US Statistical Abstract, Table 1389, has CO2 emissisons through 2009. Here is the link.

Fact 1: World-wide emissions DROPPED from 2008 to 2009: from 30,399.5 million metric tons to 30,313.2. Not much of a drop, but a drop. (I guess this article is telling us that it went back up in 2010.)

Fact 2: In 2009, China emitted more than the US: 7,706.8 vs. 5,424.5. That's a pretty big difference.

Fact 3: US emissions in 2009 (5,424.5 million metric tons) were the lowest since 1996. (We're doing much better than most countries in the world, and most countries that signed onto Kyoto.)

Fact 4: As a percentage of world total, US emissions peaked in 2000 (at 24.6%), and has been dropping every year since (to 17.9% in 2009).

Fact 5: China is now (2009) the biggest emitter, responsible for 25.4% of the world total: more than all of Europe combined, and more than the US.

We might have had more recent facts at hand, but Obama's Census Bureau discontinued the Statistical Abstract. Said it saves money. The Abstract had been published since 1878.

Read more about the carbon trade here:


Norm Benson

Nice to see some numbers and thank you for the links Randall.

The world is fueling its rise out of poverty with hydrocarbons, mostly coal. Recognition of why any agreement will fail "only requires an appreciation for simple math and these three numbers: 28.5, 47, and 1.3 billion," writes robert Bryce in the Energy Tribune. ("Nothing Doing in Durban

28.5 - The percentage growth of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide over the past decade.
47 - The percentage growth in the use of coal to produce electricity. Coal is cheap.
1.3 billion - The number of people worldwide without access to electricity.

U.S. carbon emissions dropped 1.7% over the past decade. So our CO2 emissions could have plummeted to zero (zilch, nada, nothing) and global emissions would have still risen. There are 1.3 billion people clamoring for the ability to heat and cook with electricity and not have to use wood.


Chris Foote

So if economists want to know the right amount of pollution, is there a right amount of evil. It seems that bad deeds do serve a purpose. They give us hero's who conquer them. They bring us joy when justice is done and make the world a more interesting place. So how would one conquer the question of how much is the right amount of evil in society to balance the desire of security and the need for bad things if for nothing else to let us understand what good is.