CO2 emissions levelling out?

Preliminary estimates from the International Energy Agency, released in March, suggest that energy-related emissions of CO2[1] were unchanged in 2014 compared to 2013. Countries experiencing notable drops in emissions included China, Britain, Germany and the EU as a whole, but not, of course, Australia[2]

This has happened before, but only in years of global recession, whereas the global growth rate in 2014 was around 3 per cent. Of course, there are plenty of special factors such as a good year for hydro in China. Still, after looking carefully at the numbers, I’ve come to the conclusion that this really does represent, if not the long-sought peak in emissions, at least the end of the link between rising living standards and CO2 emissions.

The most striking feature of 2014 in this context was the behavior of fossil fuel prices. Coal prices had already fallen a long way from their peak levels in the years around the GFC, and they kept on falling through the year, even as coal mines began to close and lots of projects were abandoned. Oil prices remained at historically high levels until the middle of the year but then joined the downward trend, which has continued into 2015. Natural gas is a more complex story, since there isn’t a global market, and I haven’t figured it out yet.

Still, it seems to me that the 2014 outcome is a consistent with a story in which most growth in demand for energy services will be met by a combination of renewables and energy efficiency, and in which coal continues to lose ground to gas. The lack of demand implies that fossil fuel prices are likely to stay permanently below the levels anticipated when most recent projects were initiated.

Behind all this, it seems as if the various piecemeal measures introduced with the aim of switching away from fossil fuels are working better than almost anyone expected, and with minimal economic cost. Hopefully, this will encourage world leaders to set more ambitious targets, consistent with stabilising the global climate at temperatures 2 degrees or less above pre-industrial levels.

fn1. This excludes, for example, the effects of land use change, on which the IEA doesn’t collect data
fn2. At least after the repeal of the carbon tax

236 thoughts on “CO2 emissions levelling out?

  1. @Donald Oats

    It may not be a “big bold brassy call”.

    Surely, science says if we do not reduce current CO2 concentrations then we bring on our extinction.

    This is not a risk, it is a certainty. The rate of CO2 increase has been increasing and (as an example) Abbott has now approved more oil exploration licences in marine sanctuaries. As oil exploration is the practice in most oil producing countries, it really is impossible to plan for any reduction in CO2.

    This means, when it gets serious enough to impact public opinion in 100 years, it will be too late to do anything – it is all over.

    There may be some scenario where human habitation and agriculture continues in pockets, but this is not the real issue.

    Do you have a robust scientific basis for any alternative scenario?

  2. Ivor you wrote:

    “What is the calculation or assumptions that show: ‘About 22 billion square meters of panels.’ will generate 600 million KwHr every hour, rain or shine????”

    Ivor, solar panels don’t produce electricity at night. Only a nutty person would think that solar panels alone can produce electricity, “…every hour, rain or shine”. I will assume that you undertand that solar panels don’t produce electricity at night. Did you assume that I think solar panels do produce electricity at night? If so, that would be a very odd conclusion to arrive at. Especially since the word “solar” is right there in its name. And if you did suspect that I thought solar panels produced electricity at night, it is really something you should check right off the bat to avoid confusion. For example, you could have written, “Ronald, do you think solar panels produce electricity at night?” And I would have replied something along the lines of, “Why no, Ivor, I don’t think solar panels use electricity at night. That’s why the word “solar” is in their name. If people want to use solar power at night they are going to need some form of energy storage.”

    So, putting specific details aside, I take it we in agreement that if the United States had enough rooftop space then by using energy storage they could meet their entire demand from rooftop solar?

  3. @Ronald Brak

    I do not deal with fake assumptions.

    I do not put specific details aside. My earlier questions to you stand.

    If the United States does not have enough rooftop space then they could not meet their entire demand from rooftop solar.

  4. I think being ‘spaced out’ is the most practical solution to sudden cloud cover on large PV arrays. Of course when it rains the despised gas and coal probably make up the output shortfall. As to solar thermal the news isn’t that great. The Ivanpah plant in California produce less than half its planned output in its first year. Alinta the operator of the Pt Augusta SA coal station got cold feet when they ran the numbers on the solar thermal plant they previously enthused about. Convection or updraft towers seem to exist in mockups in Spain or artist depictions not grid connected power stations.

    On PV+ batteries while it seems the New York Stock Exchange thinks they are the next big thing the spruiker who rang me half an hour ago said don’t get your hopes up. I said I’m not sure what to do when my feed-in tariff runs out in 2019. Me neither he seemed to admit. For the Australian domestic market coal is not going away anytime soon.

  5. @Donald Oats

    A number of prominent scientists have predicted extinction of homo sapiens variously “by 2100” or “within a hundred years”.

    “Eminent Australian scientist Professor Frank Fenner, who helped to wipe out smallpox, predicts humans will probably be extinct within 100 years, because of overpopulation, environmental destruction and climate change…. Frank Fenner, emeritus professor of microbiology at the Australian National University (ANU), says homo sapiens will not be able to survive the population explosion and “unbridled consumption,” and will become extinct, perhaps within a century, along with many other species.” – The Watchers web site.

    An eminent British scientist (can’t find the reference now) predicted much the same thing.

    Yes, I do know extinction means no survivor of the species. Why is it so inconceiveable? Macro species go extinct all the time in evolutionary time scales. They are going extinct at unprecedented rates right now as we create the 6th mass extinction. There are a lot of reasons to suspect that humans are actually very vulnerable to extinction (apart maybe from high population count which paradoxically cushions us from extinction and yet hastens it by overshoot and environmental destruction). We are in overshoot mode, generating soon-to-be catastrophic climate change, poisoning the planet etc. etc. In addition, we are now highly vulnerable to epidemics. We fly new pathogens around the world very efficiently. Out front line drug defences against pathogens are being over-whelmed. The more over-populated we become along with our pigs, chickens etc. the more deadly diseases we incubate.

    Micro life (bacteria and viruses) can endure a wide range of conditions. But macro life including humans cannot. Actually, the range of conditions we can survive in (without technology assistance) is very limited. We do now run a real risk of going extinct because of our blind overshoot of the limits to growth.

  6. @Donald Oats

    It may not be a “big bold brassy call”.

    Surely, science says if we do not reduce current CO2 concentrations then we bring on our extinction.

    This is not a risk, it is a certainty. The rate of CO2 increase has been increasing and (as an example) Abbott has now approved more oil exploration licences in marine sanctuaries. As oil exploration is the practice in most oil producing countries, it really is impossible to plan for any reduction in CO2.

    This means, when it gets serious enough to impact public opinion in 100 years, it will be too late to do anything – it is all over.

    There may be some scenario where human habitation and agriculture continues in pockets, but this is not the real issue.

    Do you have a robust scientific basis for any alternative scenario?

  7. @Ronald Brak

    I do not deal with fake assumptions.

    I do not put specific details aside. My earlier questions to you stand.

    If the United States does not have enough rooftop space then they could not meet their entire demand from rooftop solar.

  8. @Ikonoclast

    Frank Fenner was suffering emeritus disease when he said he thought humans would be extinct in 100 years. More specifically, he was 95 years old and died just a few months later. Science has always had a problem with reptilian old men making pests of themselves.

    There are plenty of reasons for optimism, for instance:

    (a) Brazil has just approved the commercial release of a FuturaGene genetically modified eucalypt that yields and stores 20% more carbon per unit of land than the non-gm alternative.

    (b) at least a dozen drought proof gm crops are under development

    (c) exploratory work is being done on transferring low P (phosphorus) requirement traits from Australian and South African plants to closely related crop plants

    (d) CCS is finally putting runs on the board in Canada (eg Boundary Dam) and Kemper County CCS in the US is due to start up next month.

    (e) The biggest solar panel supplier in the US will go from making 14.2% to 20% efficient solar panels in 2017.

    (f) Australian scientists have field tested modified solar panels that hit 40% efficiency

    (g) NASA is already planning to collect an asteroid and place it in the moon’s orbit. We already know that many Near Earth Asteroids (NEA) are rich in rare metals and minerals, so it is a matter of if not when these things will be mined.

    (h) poop mining.

    There are hundreds of developments such as these. End of times talk is great fun and I like Zombie flicks just as much as the next fella but provided we don’t become bewitched and demoralised by gloomy old men with rheumy eyes and liver spots we’ll be just fine.

  9. Ivor :
    @Donald Oats
    It may not be a “big bold brassy call”.
    Surely, science says if we do not reduce current CO2 concentrations then we bring on our extinction.
    This is not a risk, it is a certainty

    Ivor, I have put in bold your use of certainty. You want me to show you that it isn’t a certainty, but you yourself do not demonstrate the scientific reasoning and evidence which justifies your claim of certain extinction (of humanity). You later allow for the possibility of some scenario in which their are pockets of human habitation, and then dismiss this by saying it is not the real issue.

    Look up the definition of “extinct” please. If, to use your words, “there may be some scenario where human habitation and agriculture continues in pockets”, then, by definition, humans are not extinct. That is precisely the issue.

  10. @Ikonoclast
    Humans becoming extinct is quite conceivable. A collision with a massive asteroid could do it, conceivably. The sun going nova would put a dent in things. So, yes, humans becoming extinct by some means, that is conceivable. To become extinct purely through climate change and the knock-on effects, let’s say in the next 100 years? I ask by what mechanisms would each and every human be killed off, and/or prevented from having babies, to ensure all humanity is dead in a 100 years? Two hundred years? Conceivable, yes. Very likely? Certain? I have considerable doubts on the last two questions.

    Yes, humanity could be doomed in X years due to Y causes and Z effects of those causes. Admitting a possibility is not the same as thinking it has a significant probability of occurrence.

    It is easy enough to kill off species which are extremely specialised to their environment, or rely necessarily on a single food source which is itself under pressure. It is more challenging to kill off the cockroach species of the world: the roach, the mouse, the rat, the human. Humans have the added advantage of being very adaptable and highly innovative. If we weren’t adaptable, weren’t innovative, then I’d be more inclined to share your pessimism on this issue. Nevertheless, I think the odds are significant that we could be in for a very rough ride as effects of climate change continue to mount.

  11. Ivor, you wrote:

    “Most houses are not oriented correctly, have wrong angled roofs and are not illuminated from dawn to dusk.”

    It is not actually possible for a roof that is not shaded by anything else, which is the norm, to not be illuminated from dusk to dawn. Did you mean that the majority of roofspace is not illuminated by direct sunshine on a cloudless day from dusk to dawn? (See how I am assuming you don’t believe something crazy and are checking to see whether or not you do?) If so, that is correct. But it’s not a large problem. In Melbourne, Australia’s most southerly mainland capital, east and west facing panels have a reduction of about 13% in output compared to north facing panels and south facing panels have their output reduced by about 25%. And many people intentionally place panels west or east in order to increase their self consumption.

  12. Ivor, you wrote:

    “If the United States does not have enough rooftop space then they could not meet their entire demand from rooftop solar.”

    So does this mean you think that if they did have enough rooftop space then they could meet their entire demand from rooftop solar? If so then it becomes a matter of whether or not they have enough roofspace. You could find out how much roofspace they have. And then you’d be able to work it out.

  13. @Donald Oats

    It thing you seek is called the greenhouse effect.

    If greenhouse gas concentrations level off, or fall back slightly, heating will continue.

    The amount of oil exploration still being permitted, the right to Third World nations to develop, the increasing saturation of carbon sinks, plus population increases, guarantees that CO2 concentrations will increase unless there is a technological breakthrough in renewables.

    The impact of CO2 emissions on temperature compared to 1870 is here: Charts.

    What is the basis of your claims?

  14. @Donald Oats

    It thing you seek is called the greenhouse effect.

    If greenhouse gas concentrations level off, or fall back slightly, heating will continue.

    The amount of oil exploration still being permitted, the right to Third World nations to develop, the increasing saturation of carbon sinks, plus population increases, guarantees that CO2 concentrations will increase unless there is a technological breakthrough in renewables.

    The impact of CO2 emissions on temperature compared to 1870 is here: Charts.

    What is the basis of your claims?

  15. Coincidently, this piece on today’s “Guardian” site – debunking yet another science denying blurt from Rupert Murdoch’s local hate rag – contains the following quote from a real scientist:

    … In geological history it is only when the system is perturbed rapidly that life on Earth is detrimentally affected, and pushed to a mass extinction. This happens when the rate of change exceeds the evolutionary ability to cope.

    The high CO2 levels we see today (and will see in the future form anthropogenic emissions) are extreme compared to the equilibrium state of the modern climate system; thus represent a large and rapid perturbation.

    No, nothing to worry about. Just carry on with BAU and cornucopian ideas like poo-mining asteroids and GM CO2 “sequestration”.

  16. @Ivor
    I don’t have to prove a thing Ivor, for I am not the one claiming certainty.

    If we burned all the accessible coal, gas, and oil deposits (which includes those not yet economically viable to extract), the current estimate is a temp increase of 16.2F, approx 9C, give or take several degrees. That is the change due to the additional greenhouse gas effect.

    It’s difficult to see any way we’d avoid major societal collapses under such an extreme scenario, but even in that case, it doesn’t necessarily follow that humanity goes extinct (whether in 100 years, 200, 300 years). It would be brutal, and it is possible. It doesn’t make extinction a certainty though. So as I keep repeating, I am not the one with the case to prove.

    Let’s at least agree that we don’t want to test out the BAU scenario, and certainly not the extreme scenario I’ve outlined.

  17. @rog

    I wonder why Forbes magazine has changed its tune? Not so long ago it was the natural haven of endless “Only Nuclear Power Can Save Us” stories.

  18. Ronald Brak:
    … And then you’d be able to work it out.

    Yes, you just need to examine the facts:

    Do you agree with the Bureau of Meteorology map I cited earlier, that showed annual average solar power per meter?

    In the middle of NSW is this 18 MJ per day?

    If you use google to convert 18 mega joules to kilowatts, do you get 5 KwHr?

    Does this suggest to you that a square meter of horizontal solar panel produces a maximum of 5 KwHr if it operates at 100% efficiency?

    If you read this article “40% Efficiency” do you agree that, possibly in the future, solar cells exposed to a full days illumination can produce 2 kwhr per day over a full year?

    Do you agree, from the same source that current panels operate at less than half this?

    If not, what is your evidence and how does it correct the Bureau of Meteorology?

    or do you have a different way of converting MJ into KwHr?

    or do you have more efficient solar cells than Australian scientists at UNSW?

    Are you aware that German scientists are working at achieving 50% efficiency but this can only come from solar farms?

    Once you get these numbers – you can start to understand the futility of relying on roof top solar.

  19. Just for reference for those who think that tracking makes solar too expensive – here is the exact opposite:

    Tracking solar farm

    With more efficient cells, this can reduce CO2 emissions but cannot remove the current CO2 load from the atmosphere nor compensate for the next decade or so of international oil and coal extraction.

  20. I notice neither the Moree or Nyngan NSW solar farms disclose the terms of their power sale deal. We know the price for Royalla ACT… it was 18c per kwh compared to Loy Yang Vic brown coal’s 3c per kwh.

    The addition of moving parts creates the possibility of more things going wrong. That includes sun tracking heliostats for solar, heat pumps as opposed to resistive elements for water heaters and radiator cooling systems for compact battery packs such as the Tesla lithium ion. Unless the plant owner has workers on the job perhaps visiting multiple sites I wonder if simpler but less efficient is better. I know some people with 49 PV panels on their roof. They mainly face north but a few face all other points of the compass. White snow on the panels turns to translucent mush by late morning then slides off. Maybe they need windscreen wipers for an earlier start.

  21. @Ronald Brak

    you have already been told that a horizontal square metre averages 2 Kw per day over a year if efficiency is 40%.

    At 20% (more realistic) you get 1 kw per day or 365 per year per sq metre.

    If per capita need is 13,346 KwHr per year (using US 2011 data

    Then you need 36.3 square metres per head.

    This is a row of panels 1 m high running for 36.3 metres (120 feet).

    This only applies to DC power. So household appliances would need to operate on 48 volts DC.

    For AC power you need to increase the need by around 1.25 (using data from Moree tracking farm).

    So if you are using 240v AC you need a run of 45.38 metres (150 feet) of panels in perfect situations.

    So for 22 million people on 240 AC – you need

    36.3 X 1.25 X 22 million square metres.

    In short

    1 billion sq metres

    And this is only perfect situation, open plain, facing north (or equivalent).

    As there are 8.6 million households in Australia (ABS data)- each needs minimum of 116 square metres.

    That is if the take-up is 100%.

    Fantasy.

  22. @Ronald Brak

    you have already been told that a horizontal square metre averages 2 Kw per day over a year if efficiency is 40%.

    At 20% (more realistic) you get 1 kw per day or 365 per year per sq metre.

    If per capita need is 13,346 KwHr per year (using US 2011 data

    Then you need 36.3 square metres per head.

    This is a row of panels 1 m high running for 36.3 metres (120 feet).

    This only applies to DC power. So household appliances would need to operate on 48 volts DC.

    For AC power you need to increase the need by around 1.25 (using data from Moree tracking farm).

    So if you are using 240v AC you need a run of 45.38 metres (150 feet) of panels in perfect situations.

    So for 22 million people on 240 AC – you need

    36.3 X 1.25 X 22 million square metres.

    In short

    1 billion sq metres

    And this is only perfect situation, open plain, facing north (or equivalent).

    As there are 8.6 million households in Australia (ABS data)- each needs minimum of 116 square metres.

    That is if the take-up is 100%.

    Fantasy.

  23. Ivor, the United States has a population 14 times larger than Australia and using your figure of “…around an average 600 million KwHr every hour,” I came up with 22 billion square meters. So, since we come to about the same conclusion, I’d like to know, what on earth have you been complaining about? Remember how I wrote you seemed confused? This is why. (Well, there are other reasons, but this is a big one.)

  24. @Ronald Brak

    You were specifically asked:

    “What is the calculation or assumptions that show: ‘About 22 billion square meters of panels.’ will generate 600 million KwHr every hour, rain or shine????”

    You have tried every trick in the book to avoid this.

    You have produced no assumptions, you have done no calculation.

    If you now agree with my calculation, then rooftop solar is a fantasy.

    Using per capita figures means that the size of the population is not relevant.

    Solar farms with wind and with CO2 capture with new technology (eg graphene sheets) may contain CO2 increases.

    But this will not stop global warming.

  25. No, Ivor, you did not specifically ask me to do that, and even if you did, I am not your slave. You asked if there was a calculation and I said yes because I had just quickly done one. And I gave you the answer, very roughly 22 billion square meters of solar panels. A thank you for doing that would be appreciated. Then you started asking me questions that made no sense because if you had bothered to actually check the result I gave, you would see we were in rough agreement. If you can’t be bothered to check whether or not my calculation agrees with your figures, then that’s your own look out. So now that realize your figures roughly agree with mine, it would now be appropriate for you to appologise for not bothering to check whether or not you actually agreed with my result.

  26. Per capita, at any given moment, we currently require 1.8kW of power. Readily accessible solar and wind energy can provide per capita power of 90kW. I have seen attempts to work this out, and most of them fall into the same ballpark, same order of magnitude or better. In total terms, the current mob use 12.5TW, and in 2030 BAU and population growth takes this to 16.9TW. The current readily accessible solar and wind energy sources could provide 630TW. Note that the consumption figures are maximum power drawn at any given moment of the day or night. Average power figures would be considerably lower, but this seems to be a common way of provisioning, i.e. using peak power figures.

    Anyway, even in 2030 with our increased power requirements under BAU, the readily accessible solar and wind energy sources are almost two orders of magnitude larger.

    People have worked on whether we have the physical resources to construct the necessary equipment, and we do.

    Sadly, we are ignoring some opportunities to make the task significantly easier: aim for population decline, increase energy efficiency of everything we do, plan our electronic equipment for recycling, find alternatives for high energy density products like aluminium where possible, use feet and bikes more than we do now, require apartments and high rise to meet stringent environmental conditions, passive cooling and heating where possible, etc. Cut out some of our wasteful activities. This would all be a lot easier if we had federal governments which accepted the reality of the problem looming large. Sadly, we don’t have that government.

  27. @Ronald Brak

    I suggest you read your own post of April 16 at 15:32. The first 4 or 5 lines clearly demonstrate that you knew you were specifically asked.

    You were also specifically asked for the calculation at 18:02 on 15 April.

    You have produced nothing to back up your claim and it therefore has no credibility.

    Please do not plagiarise my work. However you may accept it as reasonably correct if you like.

    I would not claim it is necessarily correct until it has been independently corroborated.

    However it does appear to be better than your attempt which you have kept secret.

  28. @Ivor
    Your wish is my command: for the power estimates, see this Scientific American article, “A path to sustainable energy by 2030”, by Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucci, pp 58–65, November 2009. The numbers are given early into the article, or numbers which can be converted readily enough. For population figures, there are numerous sources, but Wikipedia is probably good enough.

    The IEA “2014 Key World Energy Statistics” has conversion tables, and plenty of breakdown tables, for energy production, consumption, etc. You can find it here.

    As an aside, my daily electricity use is 8.56kWh/day for the previous quarter, which includes a chunk of Summer—and air-conditioner use. I don’t heat the apartment in winter as there is no need. I don’t have solar PV, just straight mains power.

    That is probably an over-estimate of my annualised per day rate, but if we use it as a starting point, that gives 3.1244MWhr/a electricity use (from the utility only), or approx 11.25GJ/a, where I have converted from MWhr to GJ, using 1kWh = 3.6MJ, i.e. 1MWh = 3.6GJ. Multiply that by 7 billion people (i.e. 7×10^9) and it gives approx 80EJ/a, as a world electricity consumption per annum. This is pretty close (ballpark) to the figures in the IEA report for 2014. Metric system prefixes available here.

    Going the other way, my power consumption averages 350W = 350J/s. For someone in the western world, this is okay, although I’d like to shrink it further.

    Depending on sources, whether grid electricity or just fossil fuel generated electricity is used, the figures obviously vary considerably—but still within the same order of magnitude.

  29. Rog, I’m afraid that all that’s happening there is AGL is admitting the reality that new renewable generation is now cheaper than new fossil fuel generation and that their existing fossil fuel capacity won’t last forever. As now, they will oppose carbon pricing and rooftop solar if they see a pecuniary advantage in doing so. But I suppose this is good news in that they could have instead said something vague about how coal is the future or worse, started a PR campaign to convince everyone what a great planet Venus is.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s