Home > Environment > The good news on climate

The good news on climate

November 25th, 2016

There’s plenty of bad news around these days, and that’s true of climate policy as of many other things. Turnbull (or Abbott, pulling Turnbull’s strings) has already imposed massive cuts in climate science research in Australia and it seems certain that Trump will do the same in the US.

Happily, it looks as if they have come too late to do real damage. The fact of climate change is now well established. Cutting research will impose all kinds of costs, but it’s not going to change the conclusions of science. Of course, the right will reject inconvenient science as they have done for decades, but more of less research won’t change that.

The big news is that the problem has turned out to be much easier to solve than anyone thought. We’ve long known that, to have a 50-50 chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C, emissions should peak in 2015, and decline at an annual rate of at least 2.2 per cent thereafter. Hardly anyone thought a peak could happen before 2020 at the earliest, and this would imply a decline so steep (4.6 per cent per year) as to be just about impossible.

It now seems pretty clear, however, that fossil fuel emissions did in fact peak, or at least flatten out in 2015, and have remained stable through 2016.

Of course, stabilization is not enough. Is it possible for emissions to decline at the required rate. We can look at an identity

e = g – t – r

where e is the rate of growth of emissions, g is the rate of growth of output, t is the annual technological improvement in energy efficiency (the ratio of energy use to output, and r is the reduction in emissions per unit of energy, due to renewables).

Currently, these are just about in balance. But installations of renewables (and therefore r) are growing rapidly, while g is declining in the developed world, and probably also in China. It follows that we can expect e to become negative in the near future.

Policy matters, and it is important that the Paris Agreement should go ahead, with or without Trump and Turnbull. But the goals to which governments are willing to commit depend on what they think they can credibly promise. So, the fact that stabilizing the global climate looks to be feasible within the current economic framework is really good news.

UPDATE: A couple of commenters have questioned the math above. So, let’s spell it out. Let
E = Emissions (tonnes CO2)
G = Gross World Product (constant $)
J = Energy used (joules)
T (for technology) = G/J ($/joules)
R (for reduction) = J/E (joules/tonne CO2)

E = G / (T*R)
Taking logs

log (E) = log (G) – log (T) – log (R)

Differentiating with respect to time

e = g – t – r

as stated.

Anyone wishing to debate this further should do so in the Sandpit

Categories: Environment Tags:
  1. Smith
    November 25th, 2016 at 11:21 | #1

    India is going in the wrong direction for your identity. It’s economic growth rate is increasing, as is its energy per unit of GDP. The result: India’s emissions grew by 5% in 2015. At 1.2 billion people, India is big enough to affect the world in a major way.

  2. Ikonoclast
    November 25th, 2016 at 11:26 | #2

    Fair enough, but then do we not have to plug in the following equation? I will express it in absolutes not changes in rate as I am short of time.

    Human Emissions + Natural Emissions – Natural Sinks – Human sequestering = Net Result.

    The concern here is if we have triggered on-going rises in natural emissions and have progressively impaired natural sinks and thus reduced natural sink uptakes.

    Does anyone have any up-to-date data or links to this sort of information?

  3. Newtownian
    November 25th, 2016 at 12:03 | #3

    John please dont take offense but….I have to say yeah maybe. I think I’ll instead watch these plots below instead and get back to you in 10 years time which is what you need for real noisy scientific data to resolve into a clear trend.


    (Ooops I forgot we wont have this science available….but that wont matter?!)

    pps regarding believing stats from a bureaucracy or policy shop, myself and a friend have been mining World Bank stats……talk about dodgy brothers – at least if you are looking for accuracy in the < 20% +- range…..which made me wonder about your sources in particular the eciu

    Here is the advisory board http://eciu.net/about/advisory-board and 'the team' http://eciu.net/about/the-team I had hoped to see a good swag of IPCC experts but this is not the case. Rather your arguments seem primarily to depend on an organization overseen by a board lacking a single physical scientist and possessing only one energy expert on its team immersed in a sea of spin doctors? i.e. a self appointed Think Tank.

    Holly Grattan Institute Batman!

    Maybe John its time to use Nature and Science as your preferential sources of good/bad blog news on climate rather than the output of such organisations whose agenda may not be totally transparent.

  4. Donald Oats
    November 25th, 2016 at 12:04 | #4

    According to other reports, we have less than six years before we hit the CO2-e concentration that gives less than 2/3 odds of staying under 1.5C increase in global temperature. If we reduce the growth rate in emissions, it could be strung out to 7 or 8 years. The current annual mean global temperature is 1.3C above pre-Industrial levels. Given that even if we stop emissions today, there is a large time lag before the rate of increase of global temperature hits zero, we are skirting on thin ice indeed.

    I think that the focus upon global stats is becoming misleading, for the real kicker is that the bulk of the increase to the global average is happening in the high latitudes, especially the Arctic circle; they are experiencing temperatures that are 20C higher than previous months from any previous year. Although the insolation for the Arctic region is relatively low, the impacts are immense; for example, the current high temperatures are preventing sea ice from forming—when change of state of water is interfered with, it has massive consequences, altering the albedo of the region, for instance. The basic issue is that the changes in the high latitudes may precipitate climatic changes at lower latitudes, and the changes are no longer tightly coupled to the GHG atmospheric concentrations. In dynamical systems terminology, it is a dynamic bifurcation; they do not necessarily behave the same as static bifurcations, or quasi-static ones. We shouldn’t fool ourselves that the distinction doesn’t matter.

    We really don’t know. What we do know is that the rate of change now simply exceeds any of the rates we have gleaned from ancient sources…we can’t be sure that we won’t trip new mechanisms for climate change. Or put another way, when the rate of increase vastly exceeds the previous rates in the record, is it wise to assume that the system won’t react to the rapidity of the increase as well as the overall size of the increase in atmospheric GHG?

    I want to be positive, but so far we have had such shocking luck with politicians not getting it, I don’t know that being positive is wise.

  5. may
    November 25th, 2016 at 12:28 | #5

    todays fin has a bit about neighbors .

    one with lots of panels, others without.

    neighbor 1 supplies neighbor 2 (+) everybody is happy( mostly?).

    (incredulous) is it possible this will lead to a situation where power will be “too cheap to meter”?

  6. John Quiggin
    November 25th, 2016 at 12:30 | #6

    @1 India’s GDP grew by 7.5 per cent in 2015, so energy intensity is declining. But obviously if emissions are falling in the developed world and stationary overall they must currently be rising in places like India. OTOH in line with the OP renewables are going gangbusters

    @2 I’ll try and post on this some time

    @3 All good points. Still, I’d say that, post-Trump, nuclear war is now a bigger threat than climate disaster

  7. November 25th, 2016 at 12:49 | #7

    The worst and/or funniest part of all this, depending on your mindset, is that if CO2 emission peak and then decline and global temperatures do not rise 3 or 4 degrees, the climate deniers will just say – “See, we told you so. There was never anything to worry about”.

    Just like people still mock Y2K, ignoring all the time, effort and money spent on upgrading computer systems to prevent problems.

  8. wilful
    November 25th, 2016 at 14:43 | #8

    Walt Garage :
    The worst and/or funniest part of all this, depending on your mindset, is that if CO2 emission peak and then decline and global temperatures do not rise 3 or 4 degrees, the climate deniers will just say – “See, we told you so. There was never anything to worry about”.
    Just like people still mock Y2K, ignoring all the time, effort and money spent on upgrading computer systems to prevent problems.

    I would rather avoid the more serious effects of climate change than enjoy mocking Andrew Bolt et al.

  9. Nick
    November 25th, 2016 at 14:57 | #9

    Emissions may have stopped growing for a few years…but atmospheric CO2 levels continue to rise as ever.
    Something wrong with a sink or two?

  10. Ikonoclast
    November 25th, 2016 at 14:58 | #10


    I take your point but I would love to rub a few AGW deniers’ faces in bush-fire ash. There is a “just joking alert” on that of course. I am not seriously suggesting I would assault anyone. I am a very peaceable fellow now and I have been for at least the last 40 of my adult years.

  11. Ivor
    November 25th, 2016 at 15:35 | #11

    This is a shockingly bad approach.

    I have often heard industry lobbyists claiming good news based on different pretexts -eg slowing growth in “energy-related” fossil fuels, or “decline” in energy intensity etc etc.

    This is all smoke and mirrors because what matters is whether CO2 emissions increase not cherry-picked partial trends.

    You cannot rely on newspaper reports and secondary sources. The data is here:


    The increase in CO2 emissions from 2014 to 2015 was 2%.

    2014 emissions were 10.99 (fossil fuel, cement [9.89] land use change [1.10])
    2015 emissions were 11.21

    But there is worse.

    The sink fell from 6.77 (2014 ocean + land) to 4.92 [2015].

    So the amount being added to the atmosphere increase by 49%.

    This is corroborated by the NOAA Mauna Loa data that shows that Annual Mean Growth Rate is at a record high, just over 3 ppm/yr.

    I let those who want to, to fuss and fiddle over derivatives.

    NB The land sink is very volatile – so next year could be better.

  12. Ivor
    November 25th, 2016 at 15:51 | #12

    @Donald Oats

    the Arctic circle; they are experiencing temperatures that are 20C higher than previous months from any previous year.

    What is the source???

  13. Donald Oats
    November 25th, 2016 at 17:02 | #13

    There are a few, but this Guardian article captures it: Arctic warmth off the charts (2016-11-22). That’ll lead back to the original source.

  14. rog
    November 25th, 2016 at 18:26 | #14

    @Walt Garage Absolutely.

    Conservatives can’t be seen agreeing with progressives/socialists/greenies so they will wait until an energy busting gizmo is invented then claim victory.

  15. November 25th, 2016 at 20:11 | #15

    Nick: atmospheric CO2 concentration will keep going up until emissions hit net zero, which won’t happen for another 25 years. We will certainly overshoot the 1.5 degree limit (2016 is around +1.2 degrees), so we will need massive sequestration. Unlike net zero, this absolutely requires a carbon tax or equivalent plus new technology.

  16. November 25th, 2016 at 20:18 | #16

    The IEA and Tyndall are credible professional sources too, and they say emissions from industry stabilised. Land use emissions are probably still rising, though the quality of the data is poor, and noisy from one-offs like the Indonesian forest fires.

  17. Ivor
    November 25th, 2016 at 20:52 | #17

    @James Wimberley


    CO2 “from industry” is not the problem.

    This is deliberate cherry picking.

  18. November 25th, 2016 at 21:30 | #18

    No real hint of any slowdown in the increase of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere:


  19. jrkrideau
    November 25th, 2016 at 21:33 | #19

    @Walt Garage
    Clearly the Y2K problem was just a scare to make money just like global warming.

    Oh wait, was not I taught never to include the 19 in 1984 to save precious memory?

    Heck, if Noah survived the Flood it could not have been much of a flood.

  20. Joe
    November 26th, 2016 at 03:06 | #20

    i guess we must take a skerrick of good news when we find it.
    BUT the chances of a, say 4-6 C rise in temperatures is not negligible, notwithstanding the emissions reductions. Its a global game of russian roulette with who-knows how many cartridges in the revolver.
    The arctic ice trends of the last 30 years make my blood run cold. Tipping points anyone?

  21. John Quiggin
    November 26th, 2016 at 05:10 | #21


    You (“10 years time which is what you need for real noisy scientific data to resolve into a clear trend.”) and Ivor at 11 (“NB The land sink is very volatile – so next year could be better.”) explain why it’s a bad idea to look at outputs (annual changes in estimated CO2 concentrations) rather than inputs (emissions). In the long run, as long as the atmospheric fraction stays constant, the annual increase in CO2 will be equal to about half of annual emissions. So, you can and should ignore the noise.

    To put this as cearly as possible, if you want to know anything about trends, look at emissions, not concentrations. I’ve explained this quite a few times, so from now on, anyone who wants to make the claim that we should be looking at concentrations, please take this to the sandpit.

  22. Newtownian
    November 26th, 2016 at 07:16 | #22

    I beg to disagree John.

    If the inputs you were relying on were real and we had pinned down the precise relationship between temperature and CO2 inputs, and the feedback cycles , and the politics were predictable, I might agree. However your optimism here depends on:

    1. the trend to decarbonisaton in that plot continuing in a straight line down and down. – That from what I have seen depends on a lot of technologies that have been much slower in maturing or being rolled out than hoped for, and getting away from the panacea of gas much more rapidly (panacea because gas still generates half the CO2 from coal, and 50% in an economically growing world is a worry – it points to not a continuing decline but a long plateauing at something like current emission rates which are already far to high).

    2. the relationship between temperature and CO2 is usually treated as a more or less linear extrapolation from the present. – However you see when you look at the plots a wide uncertainty gap/band in the better graphs which says “it actually could be much worse so dont be too optimistic yet even if nature aligns with out negotiations”. One example reason for less optimism is the problem of forcing of SO2 which may have been masking early increases. Another uncertainty is the rate of transport of CO2 into the ocean depths – which could be affected negatively by point 3. Currently those NASA temperature charts show an up tic.

    3. There is the feedback problem whereby human CO2 inputs accelerate natural emissions. This critical issue was highlighted again yesterday in fact https://www.sei-international.org/publications?pid=3047 – (the link yesterday wasnt working so I provide it here – the interesting stuff starts on page 64). The underlying change/problem is transformation of the Arctic, from a giant reflector to a giant heatsink – technically albedo as you know (with changes in the Antarctic also possible).

    Which in turn will feedback and trigger carbon dioxide and methane releases as the permafrost melts much more extensively. How much is the big question.

    The rates are critical of course but the data is still not all there. A particular interest of mine is the problem of Greenland snow algae (a candidate equivalent of Edge of Darkness’s Black Flowers). A couple of decades ago I worked on these as well as moss and lichen in Antarctica and this taught me just how dramatic a change this albedo transition can be when the sun shines 24 hours in these latitudes during summer.

    4. Finally the hoped for trend in yourr links requires stable political regimes committed to climate change action in a time when they are anything but. – Perhaps we will move to rational green democracy in the next decade. But the trend looks more to be toward soft fascism and science denial.

    To illustrate its potential a mild form/impact taking place here in NSW is worthy of note in respect to climate change impacts. This is changes in land clearing controls to empower farmers with climate implications which are passing without any note about its relationship to sequestration that I have seen. Aside from the conservation problems this strikes at the heart of what Australia was supposed to have been doing to control its emissions – stopping land clearing. Now we have the reversing of this as though past carbon accounting meant nothing.

    A few years back I was discussing the prospect of trying to rel

  23. Newtownian
    November 26th, 2016 at 07:47 | #23

    ps – John – if my doom and gloom doesnt convince you to be a tad less optimistic could always try this latest from the dreaded George Monbiot https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/25/13-crises-we-face-trump-soil-loss-global-collapse

    Of particular note is a new (for most people) apocalypse horseman added in the form of item 12 – soil destruction from salinity, water extraction, urban sequestration of the best land, erosion, acidification, nutrient depletion, export (turf farms), mining based destruction etc.. In Oz we are familiar with the problem clinging to marginal agricultural lands as we do. But in fact our problems are far wider. Its just we’ve degraded our inheritance a bit earlier.

  24. Ronald Brakels
    November 26th, 2016 at 08:12 | #24

    Newtonion, John stating that anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions have leveled off is not optimism, its a fact. Maybe improved information will adjust the figures either up or down, but there is not a lot of wriggle room. Stating that the problem is easy to solve is not optimism but a fact. The cost of renewable energy is now competitive with fossil fuels and continuing to fall. Stating that nuclear war is now a larger threat than climate change is not optimism, it is bloody depressing.

  25. tony lynch
    November 26th, 2016 at 09:08 | #25

    @Ronald Brakels
    No, it is not fact. Do look at the Tamino link: that guy is the real expert here. JQ is not. (And for the Arctic etc, see Neven Sea Ice Forum)

  26. Ivor
    November 26th, 2016 at 09:17 | #26

    @Donald Oats

    Blimey – you are right.

    But the 20C is a “peak”.

    I did not believe you as this aspect was missed.

  27. Ivor
    November 26th, 2016 at 09:19 | #27

    @Ronald Brakels

    carbon dioxide emissions have leveled off is not optimism, its a fact.

    This needs to be called-out for what it is: Absolute bullsh*t.

  28. Andrew
    November 26th, 2016 at 09:46 | #28

    The depressing thing about any discussion on climate change is that most of the noise is being made by ignorant climate change deniers on the right, and eternal pessimists on the left. No-one wants to hear any good news.

    It’s similar to the criticism Pearson made of the ABC on the its coverage of aboriginal issues – the victim mentality is live and well. It would be devastating to the left if it turned out we’re making progress on mitigating climate change without having to put on our hair shirts!

    Surely it would be great news if finally the cost of renewables is coming down to levels where we can wean ourselves off fossil fuels without impacting economic growth, standards of living and poverty alleviation in the developing world?

  29. Ivor
    November 26th, 2016 at 10:08 | #29

    @John Quiggin

    I take a different view.

    And have stated it many times. Please take it to the sandpit, as requested

  30. Newtownian
    November 26th, 2016 at 11:28 | #30

    @Ronald Brakels @Andrew

    Rather than arguing whether those who disagree with John are pessimists v. those who agree are optimists as though this is about attitudes to life, maybe a better thing to consider is more detailed expert opinion one of which Monbiot conveniently identified.

    ROGELJ, J., DEN ELZEN, M., HÖHNE, N., FRANSEN, T., FEKETE, H., WINKLER, H., SCHAEFFER, R., SHA, F., RIAHI, K. & MEINSHAUSEN, M. 2016. Paris Agreement climate proposals need a boost to keep warming well below 2 C. Nature, 534, 631-639. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v534/n7609/pdf/nature18307.pdf

    [Abstract – though the freely available part does provide the key plots – The Paris climate agreement aims at holding global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to “pursue efforts” to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. To accomplish this, countries have submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) outlining their post-2020 climate action. Here we assess the effect of current INDCs on reducing aggregate greenhouse gas emissions, its implications for achieving the temperature objective of the Paris climate agreement, and potential options for overachievement. The INDCs collectively lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to where current policies stand, but still imply a median warming of 2.6–3.1 degrees Celsius by 2100. More can be achieved, because the agreement stipulates that targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are strengthened over time, both in ambition and scope. Substantial enhancement or over-delivery on current INDCs by additional national, sub-national and non-state actions is required to maintain a reasonable chance of meeting the target of keeping warming well below 2 degrees Celsius.]

    By comparison this is the linked source for John’s optimism. http://eciu.net/assets/peak-emissions/ and http://eciu.net/blog/2015/how-we-made-the-emissions-peaking-tool

    Both purport to project the future but project quite different scenarios whose mid points differ by a factor of over 2 in 2030 55 GT/y of which about 40 GT/y is CO2 alone v. 27 MT/y. Interestingly at their extreme PDF edges the projections touch but substantively they are making very different predictions.

    How to choose between their predictions?

    While no paper is perfect the first is a 2016 meta-analysis of a range of study projections from different groups which presumably has been through a ferocious peer review process to end up in Nature. The projects include serious consideration and presentation of uncertainties. And even with all this they still only/wisely project out to 2030.

    This contrasts with John’s offering in support of optimism – a single group’s (2015) model projection which does not appear to have been formally refereed and for which (the model section) no one has noted strongly enough to even put a comment in the feedback section. The reference to methods is not terribly enlightening as it leads only as far as the entrance of their model black box. Meanwhile they project out the future to 2100! and at this point end with no uncertainty boundaries at the end whatever?! and they even hang out the prospect of 10 GT/y in negative emissions.

    I leave it to you whether you ascribe more credibility to the respective sources of Monbiot v. John. But I think you can guess where my literature laugh test leads me.

  31. Ikonoclast
    November 26th, 2016 at 17:30 | #31

    If 7 billion humans were reduced to the densest form of matter so far observed, a quark-gluon plasma, this would be about the size of a speck of dust.

    Don’t sweat the small stuff. 😉

  32. John Quiggin
    November 26th, 2016 at 20:25 | #32


    You need to reread the post. I agree with everything in the paper you cite. Everyone knows that the INDC commitments are inadequate, and that what matters is whether governments will strengthen them as they agreed to do in Paris. To cite your source

    More can be achieved, because the agreement stipulates that targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are strengthened over time, both in ambition and scope. Substantial enhancement or over-delivery on current INDCs by additional national, sub-national and non-state actions is required to maintain a reasonable chance of meeting the target of keeping warming well below 2 degrees Celsius

    Now read the final para of my post again.

    As regards quibbling about my sources, I’m busy and picked one from Google. Will the International Energy Agency do ? https://www.iea.org/newsroom/news/2016/march/decoupling-of-global-emissions-and-economic-growth-confirmed.html

  33. John Quiggin
    November 26th, 2016 at 20:30 | #33

    @tony lynch

    Tamino is, AFAICT, a statistician, and a good one. He does not claim to be a climate scientist, nor does he appear to have any knowledge of energy economics (where I do have professional expertise). Of course, no one can be a “real expert” on every aspect of climate science. That’s why it’s important, as Newtownian says, to rely on peer-reviewed science.

  34. Ivor
    November 26th, 2016 at 21:55 | #34

    IEA is playing the usual game.

    The headline is:

    Decoupling of global emissions and economic growth confirmed

    But the evidence is:

    Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) … stayed flat for the second year in a row,

    Economic growth consists of land use change and cement as well.

    Economic growth only includes “energy-related”.

    There is NO decoupling of global emissions and economic growth.

    In fact it is better to look at economic activity, because when growth is zero, CO2 can still accumulate in the atmosphere.

    We have to learn to peer through industry spin and smoke and mirrors and focus on the real phenonema.

    The formula: e = g – t – r

    e – is the rate of growth of emissions,
    g – is the rate of growth of output,
    t – is the ratio of energy use to output,
    r – is the reduction in emissions per unit of energy, due to renewables).

    cannot possibly be correct.

    e is kg/sec => amount per time
    g is $/sec => output per time
    t is joules/$ => energy per output
    r is kg/joule => amount per energy

    You cannot possibly add and subtract these under any circumstances.

    The correct forumla is: e [is proportional to] g X t x r

    Then the dimensions of the formula balance as required.

    ie: e=kgtr [k is a parameter for external factors) or:

    e = F(g, t, r, k).

    Even if e, g, t, r are all rates (eg dimensionless percentages) the formula still makes no sense.

    But this is a general problem with “mathematical economists”. They never specify or check claims by dimensions.

    In any case the global warming trend can be entirely represented by a ratio of sinks to emissions.

    If emissions > sinks, warming increases
    If emissions < sinks, warming decreases.

    And we can use CO2 concentrations time series, and oxygen times series, to specify exactly what is happening – free of industry spin.

  35. John Quiggin
    November 26th, 2016 at 22:15 | #35

    Ivor, you really need to learn some math and keep track of the derivatives. For example, the correct statement of the final point is

    If emissions > sinks, *equilibrium temperature* increases
    If emissions < sinks, *equilibrium temperature* decreases.

    Any further claims along the lines of your last comment should go to the sandpit

  36. James Wimberley
    November 27th, 2016 at 00:31 | #36

    Of course CO2 from industry is the problem. It means the industrial system, so what’s left out is land use, which I mentioned in the very next sentence. It’s you who cherry-picks bad news to fit your doomsday bias. The real situation is quite bad enough without a thumb on the scales.

    I gave you the IEA and Tyndall links earlier. Here they are again: IEA (links on page to spreadsheet), Tyndall.

  37. James Wimberley
    November 27th, 2016 at 00:49 | #37

    I suspect Ivor may have a point on the formula. Shouldn’t it it be:
    e = g – (r*(1-t)) ?
    where e is the rate of growth of emissions, g the rate of growth of output, t the rate of reduction in energy per unit output, and r the rate of decline of emissions per unit energy.

  38. Ivor
    November 27th, 2016 at 07:11 | #38

    @John Quiggin

    You do not need derivatives to construct correct formula and diverting attention to derivatives does not mean you do not have to define your units and ensure any equation balances.

    End of story.

  39. Ikonoclast
    November 27th, 2016 at 07:13 | #39

    More broadly, and seriously, I feel claiming “good news on climate” sends the wrong message. There is little good news compared to the great mass of bad news on this issue. I mean bad news that is backed up by data and good peer-reviewed science.

    The correct stance is to headline not “good news” but instead something like Climate Crisis Looms – Emergency Climate Action is Imperative NOW”. This is the real message needed, backed up by the alarming data coming out on climate and related news. Claiming good news panders to complacency, disengagement, business as usual and extractive, destructive, oppressive and exploitative capitalism. The last both in the extreme variant we have now and as a system which always has these elements immanently connected with its essential nature as a system.

  40. Ivor
    November 27th, 2016 at 07:37 | #40

    John Quiggin :

    If emissions > sinks, *equilibrium temperature* increases
    If emissions < sinks, *equilibrium temperature* decreases.


    If emissions > sinks ….

    There NO possibility of any “equilibrium temperature”.

    If “equilibrium (sic) temperature” increases HOW is this different to “warming”?

  41. Ivor
    November 27th, 2016 at 07:56 | #41

    James Wimberley :
    I suspect Ivor may have a point on the formula. Shouldn’t it it be:
    e = g – (r*(1-t)) ?
    where e is the rate of growth of emissions, g the rate of growth of output, t the rate of reduction in energy per unit output, and r the rate of decline of emissions per unit energy.

    What are your units?

    You must have the same units on both sides of any equation and you must know the units before you obtain the data to enter into any equation.

  42. John Quiggin
    November 27th, 2016 at 08:41 | #42

    I’ll respond to Ivor in the sandpit in a little while. Nothing further on it in this thread please.

  43. James Wimberley
    November 27th, 2016 at 11:12 | #43

    I profoundly disagree. A message of apocalyptic doom encourages defeatism. I suspect this underpins much denialism: if facing climate change means abandoning industrial civilisation, it can’t be done, so let’s party on. Action depends on hope. Noah got a blueprint for the Ark. The RAF had parity of equipment and numbers with the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940, and better organisation. The flattening of emissions means that the 2 degree cap is achievable with a fairly modest tightening of current policies and/or further technical progress – the Paris NDCs are behind reality. The real challenge now is the more prudent 1.5 degree cap: overshoot is almost certain, so we need to develop – not just deploy – a suite of new technologies for large-scale sequestration, and finance them with a carbon tax. The challenge is of similar scale to that met at Paris.

  44. Ivor
    November 27th, 2016 at 12:15 | #44

    @James Wimberley

    If there is a reasonable case for apocalyptic doom – you should listen and people should be told.

  45. Ikonoclast
    November 27th, 2016 at 13:58 | #45

    @James Wimberley

    I profoundly disagree with you and J.Q. When people are in existential fear for their lives and livelihoods they get highly motivated. It’s something to do with the survival instinct, I believe. The problem is precisely that people are way too complacent, way too directionless, way too paralyzed by the propaganda that essentially implies this system (capitalism) is a perpetual motion machine.

    If people were seriously fearful, they would be highly active in finding solutions. Did the nations fighting WW2 (to use your analogy) all curl up and become defeatist? No, they fought and worked like madmen (and madwomen), on all sides, to survive. It is absolute bunk that realism causes defeatism or that the apprehension of imminent danger is paralyzing. What is paralyzing is all this complacency, this hiatus of over-production, corrupting wealth and false well-being, in the West, and the notion that this system is fine: just a little tweak here and a little tweak there without real sacrifices is all it will take to save the world. Have a committee, set a lip-service target, go back to ignoring the problem.

    What is needed apparently is a salutary demonstration by nature, a dramatic catastrophe directly attributable to global warming. Sadly, this is clearly what it is going to take to shake people out of their complacency.

  46. Donald Oats
    November 27th, 2016 at 16:12 | #46

    I believe in being fully aware of the threat, be it AGW or nuclear war, or whatever, and also being positive about trying to mitigate or eliminate the risk exposure to the extent possible. It makes me sound like the glass is half empty, but on the other hand, half full. Bleak is not Black.

    With respect to Prof Q’s comments on the increased likelihood of nuclear war now that Trump is head Trumpet—or soon to be, I have no idea if the likelihood has increased, but the uncertainty definitely has. I think the more worrying developments are actually closer to home, in the Asia pacific region.

    In the Philippines President Duterte has used the cloak of drug addiction to execute, persecute and put the fear of God into specific communities; whether he directly orders the summary execution of people on the list, or not, his anti-drug platform’s protocols has essentially codified the right to kill drug dealers, drug addicts, and from the sounds of it, associates of drug dealers/addicts. Once kill lists circulate, repression is present by definition.

    In Malaysia, we also have signs of substantial repression of people. The besieged Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government recently arrested a cartoonist, on the charge of sedition; the arrest was a public one, in the middle of a writers festival. A key strategy of repression is to instil fear and self-censorship among the target group; in this case, writers and artists were the target group.

    Of course those two countries are not alone. The list of problematic governments is growing every year. Cambodia has its problems. North Korea needs no introduction. China we are all aware of, even if we pretend it’s now okay.

    The rise of repressive and oppressive state actors in the Asia pacific is scary, because latent nationalism becomes overt and more powerful for it, further fuelling the rise of the beast.

    President Duterte has legitimate reasons for going hard at solving the crisis of drug abuse in the country; however, no government in the modern age should be able to argue it is acceptable to just kill drug dealers and drug users in the streets or in back alleys—where is the outcry from our government, where is the alarm and Australia’s Asian-facing diplomatic corp on this? And is there something we could do to help deal with the drug crisis over there, while condemning and strongly arguing against the use of kill lists and execution/“enhanced interrogation” of suspects?

    So, while I do believe that AGW is a serious threat to the the ongoing harmony of human existence—at least in our current billions—I think that provided we don’t find ourselves in WW III, there is still some prospect that technological developments as well as commercial ones may allow us to avoid the worst of the risks of AGW. The big issue is whether we can get conservative and nationalistic governments to stay out of the way of these efforts, and perhaps—in a sunny season—to actually contribute positively for once.

    The Cold War was at times very scary, but it also saw the human race succeed at putting man on the moon, among other quite remarkable things. Collectively, humans can surprise themselves with what they can accomplish, even in dangerous times.

  47. November 27th, 2016 at 19:02 | #47

    @John Quiggin

    Tamino is a statistician, but he has published on climate science. See http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/6/4/044022.

  48. John Quiggin
    November 27th, 2016 at 20:45 | #48

    I profoundly disagree with you and J.Q. When people are in existential fear for their lives and livelihoods they get highly motivated.

    Have you seen any evidence for this claim, as regards climate change? I haven’t. In the absence of convincing proof, doomsterism generally encourages denialism.

    Moreover, most of the arguments for doom here, including yours, aren’t suited to a claim of the form “things are really bad, but if we take drastic action now we will be OK”. They are of the form “we are doomed regardless”

  49. Nick
    November 27th, 2016 at 23:35 | #49

    Ike, when people are quite literally being bombed in their homes and cities, the threat to their life is real and happening right now. It’s not an existential fear. The effects of climate change, happening as they will decades from now, are existential fears. They have to be subjectively imagined to be felt.

    Suffice to say I agree with John. Results that indicate we might finally be beginning to head in the right direction – the levelling off being attributed to the shutdown of coal plants in China and the US, and 90% of new energy on the planet coming from renewables – are positive.

    They’re not wishful thinking or hope. They show that we can change emissions in the right direction. So let’s build on that. Let’s shut down more coal plants, and make it an international priority to make sure it happens.

  50. Ikonoclast
    November 28th, 2016 at 06:36 | #50

    @John Quiggin

    There is a kind of courage where people fight, and fight hardest, when they strongly suspect they might be doomed. You seem to be saying most humans don’t have this kind of courage (or desperation) if put to it. I am saying they do.

    Good news stories which do not convey the full dangers and the imminence of what we face, serve to foster complacency not action. They also serve to bolster, or at least tacitly accept, the status quo of the maladaptive system, capitalism, which has given the globe this crisis.

  51. John Quiggin
    November 28th, 2016 at 06:52 | #51


    We’ll take this to the sandpit.

  52. Ikonoclast
    November 28th, 2016 at 06:54 | #52

    Oh dear, my above comment sounds terribly precious doesn’t it? J.Q. can strike it out or leave it up there for me to garner the full embarrassment and pillorying I deserve.

    However, I do still believe that we need a tough message about emergency climate being required now, along with strong dirigist (state) action to make it happen.

  53. Ikonoclast
    November 28th, 2016 at 06:55 | #53

    “emergency climate action” I meant.

  54. Ken Fabian
    November 28th, 2016 at 07:07 | #54

    If there is cause for optimism it is arising from low emissions alternatives crossing below price parity thresholds. Besides the direct effects of that – more energy investment decisions choosing those options – I think it will have an increasing effect of easing the economic alarmist fears that underpin mainstream reluctance and resistance to commit to strong and effective policy. It has the potential to break the unanimity within the lobbying by commerce and industry for obstruction and delay – the kind of unanimity that sees peak business groups like the BCA have maximising the growth of export fossil fuels as a key element of their climate policy! (I kid you not).

    Whilst I doubt Australian business owners and managers have ever been unanimous about this, at the level of their most influential collective lobbying it may as well be and whilst there are some fine sounding in principle statements of preference for carbon pricing and policy certainty these groups are amongst the fiercest opponents of either in practice. I don’t know how tight a strangle hold the fossil fuel industries have over such bodies or how readily a shift away from resisting and obstructing strong climate policy can proceed, but the renewable success story may be more significant in the near term for enabling such an attitude change than for the (still inadequate) emissions they mitigate.

    I’d like to think the energy transition we need can happen without clear, strong, committed policy, just because RE can compete and win in an open energy market, but I seriously doubt it. We need that committed policy more than ever. If the Business sector ceases to be a primary source of resistance and economic fearmongering in this the mainstream political base denial and obstruction has relied upon can have it’s foundations pulled from under it and serious policy may manage to get up – and without being so compromised, to please stakeholders, that it’s ineffectual.

  55. Ivor
    November 28th, 2016 at 11:25 | #55

    This really is FUBAR.

    Conceptually it is all over the place.

    Why not just say global warming is determined by the balance between emissions and sinks.

    Then the necessary policy objective is simply:

    S (inks) = E (missions)

    UNits LHS are: k s[-1] ie tonnes per year
    Units RHS are: k s[-1]

    As soon as you insert G, “rate of growth of output,” you self-destruct all reason and logic.

    When rate of growth of output is zero, your equation [E = G / (T*R)] all goes to zero but carbon emissions will still be accumulating in the atmosphere.

    E as defined will still be positive or negative?

    The whole modelling attempt is wrong.

    Why not just say – we need to reduce carbon emissions to the capacity of sinks.

    Produce the necessary number – from the available data, and then produce parameters

    per joule
    per $
    per capita

    or what ever.

    This is much safer ground.

  56. Jim Birch
    November 28th, 2016 at 13:16 | #56

    We don’t want to limit emission to the capacity of sinks. Sinking CO2 into the ocean is destructive to the health of the biosphere. The world ocean has an enormous capacity for CO2 but we really don’t want to use it. What we want (now) is declining emissions.

    I have a somewhat jaded view of this which is that humans are collectively unable to manage CO2 but fortunately technology has saved us, pretty much via basic cost economics, perhaps with a little bit of intentional action thrown in. No one really predicted the massive drop in the cost of solar energy to the point where it outcompetes coal; the situation has improved radically over the last decade or so. Everyone – including the dreaded capitalists – are converting to RE because it is cheaper. If solar had hit a brick wall of cost we were fried.

  57. Ivor
    November 28th, 2016 at 14:56 | #57

    @Jim Birch

    Yes, that makes sense.

  58. rog
    November 28th, 2016 at 15:59 | #58

    Good program on renewables on RN.

    Importantly, after the experience of Germany and Denmark, the base load argument has evaporated. Also, Australia has the largest/longest grid which means we can shift power here there and anywhere – if the wind ain’t blowing one place it’s blowing at another.

  59. rog
  60. Ivor
    November 29th, 2016 at 07:45 | #60

    The correct equation is:

    e = g * t * r

    e emissions (kg)
    g output ($)
    r energy intensity in output (Joules/$)
    t emissions per unit of energy (kg/Joule)

    The dimensions are:

    kg = $ * kg/J * J/$

    and the LHS = RHS.

    All very simple, provided you define your terms properly based on international standards and show your working

  61. alex
    November 30th, 2016 at 11:02 | #61

    It is so nice to hear you being optimistic in these posts, Professor Quiggin, keep it up!


  62. derrida derider
    November 30th, 2016 at 11:08 | #62

    Ivor, you’re wrong. e, for example, is not “emissions” but “RATE of emissions (ie dE/dT)”, g is not “output” but “rate of output”, etc. As John said, learn some elementary calculus.

  63. tony lynch
    December 1st, 2016 at 09:20 | #63


    As previously advised, arguments based on estimated co2 concentrations should be posted in the sandpit

  64. Bernard J.
    December 5th, 2016 at 21:59 | #64

    Looking at human emissions only may be taking one’s eye off the ball.

    Many others above have already commented on and reiterated the dwindling capacity for sinks to continue to absorb emissions, but it’s worth noting too that natural sources of carbon dioxide are being opened/enhanced as a consequence of human emissions, and secondarily by positive feedings-back. Clathrates and permafrost methane are immediately obvious components, but soil carbon loss from altered hydrological and/or fire regimes are also a concern, as are biomass loss from vegetation and warming (and possibly deoxygenating) water. Amongst other things…

    At this point the issue is not so much whether the second derivative of anthropogenic emissions is zero, but whether the first derivative of cumulative emissions is negative, and how rapidly human emissions can possibly be reduced to make it as negative as possible.

    There’s the rub.

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