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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.