Why are carbon emissions increasing?

Why are carbon emissions increasing?

The climate is changing.

After a few glasses of Chardonnay, even the most ardent sceptic would concede this reality. And the consequences are increasingly dire. The headlines of fire, flood, heatwave and crippling cold (all increasing in frequency and intensity because more energy is retained in the global atmosphere-ocean systems) are more frequent and dramatic, yet are only part of the story.

The everyday consequences are far-reaching too.

Ask a Sydneysider how often they turned on the air conditioner this summer; pretty much every day they’d say. Extreme heat keeps people indoors and makes them worry about their energy bills. Cold in Chicago does the same thing. There are some heavy psychological challenges from these consequences that run far deeper than cabin fever.

Then there is the guilt trip.

Rhetoric and considerable evidence have convinced most of us that climate change is our fault, the consequence of profligate emissions of greenhouse gases coming roughly a third each from our needs for energy, transport and agriculture.  

We are also told that the solution is emission reduction.

So why are global greenhouse gas emissions increasing?

First reason is
context

One inevitability of the industrial revolution that began in the late 1800’s is that most human societies are not only dependent on fossil fuel energy, but they have also used it to grow.

More people, with ever greater needs and wants. This success means that use of fossil fuel to power people and agriculture are greater than ever. Indeed, most of the carbon emissions have happened in the lifetime of the baby boomers. Three-quarters of our fossil fuel burning has happened since ABBA won the Eurovision song contest in 1974.


This is a ‘locked in’ reason. We cannot go back and make different decisions any more than we could turn off the needs and wants of the 4 billion people around in 1974 or the 7.5 billion people doing their thing today.

Just like we cannot go back and imagine if Mouth & MacNeal from the Netherlands had won Eurovision in 1974 with their little ditty, “I see a star”. They came second.

Second reason is
behaviour

Estimates suggest that up to half of all greenhouse gas emissions are the result of inefficiencies and waste: poor construction practices, food waste, sloppy supply chains, replacing goods that work fine with shiny new ones.

We also like to copy ostriches. Subsidies to fossil fuel businesses are estimated at $5 trillion globally. That is a lot of money to prop up emissions we are told we should be curbing.

Third reason is
we don’t want to stop emitting

The willingness to make the sacrifices to our lifestyles and wellbeing, real or perceived, to reduce carbon emissions is absent for most of us. Way too many everyday issues are way more important to us than breaking a few weather records. So what if they have to shovel some snow in Chicago.

The formal government agreements to counter individual indifference have failed too. The infamous Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, that’s 20 years ago. Since then global emissions have continued to rise.

There is some hope that renewable energy sources are becoming cheap enough for us to want to use them purely for back pocket reasons. This will see emission rates stall and even for coal and oil trail off towards an ignominious retirement (they will not go gracefully).

Again the reality is that market pressure was always needed to move the dial. Climate advocacy, legislation, or protocols were never going to generate the necessary willingness to act.


Source: Boden, T.A., Marland, G., and Andres, R.J. (2017). Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2Emissions. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A. doi 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2017.

Will global greenhouse gas emissions stop increasing?

Yes they will.

Most likely emissions will decline to pre-industrial revolution levels for three main reasons:

  1. Fossil fuels will become scarce and eventually run out
  2. Conversion of land for agriculture will slow to nothing once all the land that could be farmed is farmed
  3. Low to no emission alternatives to our current behaviours that produce greenhouse gases will be cheaper but just as satisfying

A more significant question is not will but when.

Should the three reasons follow their natural course it could be decades or longer before emissions slow and reverse back toward the natural background rate.

This means that every day in Sydney or Chicago will be a headliner for its extreme heat or cold, until it’s the norm and the headline changes back to the inane actions of famous human beings.

Why are global greenhouse gas emissions increasing?

Because of people.

Trite perhaps, but true nonetheless.


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