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Published on September 27th, 2012 | by Zachary Shahan


Not Crashing Our Boat — Finding Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis

September 27th, 2012 by  

This is a special guest post from one of our regular readers. It’s an attempt to bring some light to the dire situation we are in globally, and to show how we can inch our way out of total societal collapse. Included in the email to me with this were some very apt lines (nothing conveys a point better than a good metaphor):

“I spent a few years living on a sailboat and there are times when you’re headed into a dock a bit faster than is comfortable and realize it’s time to back off.  You throw the prop into reverse and give it full throttle.  For a while you keep closing on the dock but then you realize that sweet feeling of slowing down and starting to back off.”

And also this line: “It seems that a tale can be told that we seem to have turned the corner thanks to the ‘good  witches’ of renewables and travel efficiency and some help from the ‘grey witch’ of natural gas.”

Here’s the full piece:

1. CO2 peaking by 2020 and cutting 9% of emissions per year should save us from runaway climate change.

In 2009, the German Advisory Council on Global Change released the following graph. It illustrates how much we would have to cut our CO2 emissions per year once we reach peak output. Clearly, we missed the 2011 point and are fairly certain to miss the 2016 point. But if we can peak, worldwide, by 2020 or sooner, we can limit CO2 emissions to 750 billion tonnes between  2010 and 2050.

2) US CO2 emissions seem to have peaked and dropped to late 1990s levels. The highest CO2 emission year was 2005.

CO2 emissions:

  • 2005 = 6,029 million tonnes. (Metric tons, 2,200 pounds.)
  • 2010 = 5,634 million tonnes.

CO2 emissions decreased 395 million tonnes or 6.6% from 2005 to 2010.

2005 was the year of peak CO2 emission and 2010 is the most recent year for which we have final data.  Preliminary 2011 data finds CO2 down a bit lower, to approximately 1998 levels. First quarter 2012 CO2 levels were roughly equal to first quarter 1992 levels.

“It’s the recession, stupid. Of course we released less CO2, our economy has crashed and we’ve cut way back on electricity generation and driving.”

Let’s look at the pre-recession peak year of 2005 vs. 2010, the most recent post-recession year for which we have complete data, and unofficial 2011 numbers.

Was it because our economy is in worse shape as measured by gross domestic product (GDP)? Below is what has happened post 1990. Plotted are percentage changes from 1990 levels. 2011 numbers are not “official” numbers and may be revised when the final 2011 report comes out later this year.

GDP increases every year over 1990 with a small dip in 2009. CO2 rises slowly until 2005 and then falls.

  • 2005 GDP — $12,623.0 million
  • 2010 GDP — $14,526.5 million

Dollar amounts are normalized. GDP increased $1,903.5 million or 15.1% from 2005 to 2010. So, no. CO2 emissions fell 6.6% and GDP rose 15.1%.

Was it because we generated less electricity? Again, let’s start with 1990 and see how the amount of electricity generated and CO2 released fared on a percentage from 1990 levels progressed.

Electricity generation increased to about 2007 and then more or less leveled out, with a downward blip in 2009.  CO2, as we’ve seen before, peaks at 2005 and then starts downward. (Once again, 2011 number may be revised in the final 2011 report.)

  • In 2005, electricity generated was 4,055,421 thousand MWhs.
  • In 2010, electricity generated  was 4,127,647 thousand MWhs.

Electrical generation increased 72,226 thousand MWhs, or 1.8%, from 2005 to 2010. So, no again, answer not discovered. In 2010, we generated 1.8% more electricity while CO2 emissions fell 6.6%.

Might it be how we generated electricity?

As can be seen in this graph, the percentage of electricity generated using coal was in the low 50% range during the 1990s, but began to start falling in the 2000s. In 1990, coal produced 52.5% of our electricity. By 2010, its contribution was down to 42.4%, and unofficial numbers for 2012 have coal in the 30% range.

Natural gas, while presenting its own problems of methane leaks and groundwater contamination during fracking, does produce about half the amount of CO2 as does coal when producing a unit of electricity.

And, from 2005 until 2010, non-hydro renewables (wind, geothermal, and solar) rose from a 2.2% to a 4.4% generation level.

Was it that we traveled less and burned less oil?

In  2005, Americans drove 8,190 millions miles per day. In 2010, they drove 8,127, a decrease of 63 million miles, or only 0.8%.

Airline “seat miles” fell from 1,029,244 in 2005 to 991,929 in 2010. That was a decrease of 37,315 units, or 3.6%.

Oil consumption in 2005 was 20,802 thousand barrels per day. In 2010, the US was consuming 19,180 thousand barrels per day. Oil consumption dropped 1,622 thousand barrels per day, or 7.8%.

We drove about the same (-0.8%) and flew somewhat less (-3.6%) but cut our oil usage by 7.8%. That should tell us where some of our lower oil-produced CO2 emissions came from — about half from decreased usage and half from higher efficiency.

Overall, the US has cut CO2 emissions over the last 6-7 years. Some from burning less coal and making more electricity from natural gas and renewable sources. Some from flying a bit less, but as much or more than that from driving and flying more efficiently. It seems that we are on the right track — now it’s time to speed things up.

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About the Author

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession and Solar Love. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, and Canada. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in. But he offers no professional investment advice and would rather not be responsible for you losing money, so don't jump to conclusions.

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  • JMin2020

    Well; it appears driving less and burning less coal are still workable approaches to reducing unwanted emissions.

  • Captivation

    It just hit me today that we’ve all gotten old. As a kid I loved to hear people talk about the future. Sunny or gloomy, the predictions were always interesting. But now, somehow we’ve become “culturally” old and there is no common ground to unleash our wandering imaginations. We’re all stuck in Granny’s house with the curtains closed and the stale cookies. What we really want (and need) is to get outside and play in the sun.

    Truth is like sunlight. It burns off staleness. We should all step outside and get a truth-tan.

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