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Recent trends in CO2 emissions

Filed under: — group @ 14 June 2010

Guest commentary by Corinne Le Quéré, Michael R. Raupach, and Joseph G. Canadell

There is a letter in Nature Geoscience this month by Manning et al (sub. reqd.) “Misrepresentation of the IPCC CO2 emission scenarios” discussing some recent statements about the growth rates of CO2 emissions compared to the IPCC scenarios that informed the climate modeling in the last IPCC report. In it they refer to results published by us and colleagues in a couple of recent papers (Raupach et al. 2007; Le Quéré et al. 2009), and to statements made by others on the basis of our results (Ganguly et al. 2009; Anderson et al. 2008; Reichstein 2010). Specifically, Manning et al object to the claim that “current CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning were higher than the values used in climate projections by the IPCC”.

We agree with the Manning et al’s main point, and appreciate the chance to provide some clarification on the graph in question and subsequent use of our result. To be specific, recent emissions were not higher than each and every one of the climate projections by the IPCC, as has been claimed by some other studies citing our work, although they were near the top end of the range.

So what is the claim of ‘misrepresentation’ based on?

The IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) published in 2000, provided forty scenarios representing plausible futures depicted by common storylines. The IPCC selected six of the forty original SRES scenarios as “illustrative” of the storylines to be used for projections of climate change. In our papers however, we compared recent CO2 emissions with the averages across models depicting common storylines.

Some other studies cited our results assuming that we compared recent CO2 emissions with the illustrative SRES scenarios (unfortunately our figures were not sufficiently clear). The real emissions were above all the scenario averages, while the emissions in one of the six illustrative scenarios was higher than observed. The misinterpretation of our results contributed to claims that IPCC’s global warming projections might be underestimated (Ganguly et al. 2009). Our results do not support such claims.

Why chose scenario averages instead of the illustrative scenarios?

Over the 2000-2010 time period, the trends in CO2 emissions in the illustrative scenarios are dominated by individual model biases. Model averaging is a common way to minimise biases found in individual models and to extract the more robust tendencies and common expectations from a group of equally valid model results. For instance, the A1 storyline depicts a common future based on fossil intensive (A1FI), non-fossil energy sources (A1T), or a balance across all sources (A1B). Logically, one would expect that the fossil intensive scenario A1FI would emit more CO2 than the non-fossil scenario A1T, with the balanced scenario A1B in the middle. This is what comes out of the model averages. In the illustrative scenarios however, the balanced scenario A1B has more CO2 emissions than the other illustrative scenarios during 2000-2010, which reflects more an individual model bias over this time period than a common tendency.

Manning et al. point out that model averages have problems of self-consistency and should not be used. Whereas there are indeed problems with model averages, they have to be weighted against problems of individual model biases and the choice of comparison depends on the issue addressed. As we understand, the problems of self-consistency in this context refer to two things. First, that gases from different models should not be mixed because modelling groups make different choices, for example regarding the future use of land for agriculture. Those choices lead to specific combinations of gases which are lost in the averaging. Second that if models are averaged, it is more difficult to relate back the tendencies to the underlying drivers of the emissions. Both these issues are problematic when the SRES scenarios are used for climate projections, and thus the IPCC rightly selected illustrative scenarios for this purpose. However the issues of self-consistency were less important for our analysis which focused on CO2 only and used other available data to interpret the observed trends. We felt that on balance, the issue of self-consistency seemed less important than issues of biases in individual models in the context of our analysis.

How did CO2 emissions changed in the recent past?

The figure below shows how the CO2 emissions in 2008 (the last year when emissions are available) compared to the 40 original SRES emission scenarios, including both the scenario averages which we used, and the illustrative Scenarios used by the modeling groups to project climate change as reported in the IPCC report. It is clear from this comparison that recent emissions were near the top end of the SRES emission scenarios, whether the comparison is made with the original forty scenarios, with the six illustrative scenarios, or with scenario averages.

CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning for 2008 in PgC/y. Data are from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center. Emissions for each of the 40 emission scenarios published by IPCC’s Special Report on Emissions Scenarios are shown. The Scenario names (A1B, A1FI, A1T, A2, B1, B2) correspond to common storylines. The observed emissions are shown in black (uncertainty of about ±6%). Red bars are averages by families of Scenarios. Dark gray bars are the illustrative scenarios used by the IPCC to project climate. See here for a comparison to 2009 projections as in Le Quéré et al. (2009), using the Gross Domestic Product updated by the International Monetary Fund in 04/2010.

The picture is the same if we analyse how fast emissions grew in the past decade. The recent growth in CO2 emissions was 3% per year on average during 2000-2009. This rate includes projected emissions during the 2009 financial crisis, and exceeds the growth estimated by 35 of the 40 SRES scenarios (34 if the trend is computed with end points instead of a linear fit).

Manning and colleagues rightly highlight that the emission scenarios were designed to cover long term trends rather than short term fluctuations. As the CO2 emission scenarios are the primary drivers of climate change in model projections, it is important to monitor deviations from the observed trends, and in particular to identify if the underlying drivers of the deviations have any foreseeable long-term implications. In Raupach et al. (2007) we identified, based on 2000-2005 data, that the recent trends were largely caused by increased use of coal in China and other developing economies, uncompensated by additional improvements in energy efficiency elsewhere. This situation persisted at least until 2008 (Le Quéré et al. 2009). An expansion of the world’s coal-based industry locks energy production in CO2-intensive infrastructure for decades, and thus it has long-term implications for future global CO2 emissions and climate, and in particular for prospects of reaching the most ambitious climate targets.

159 Responses to “Recent trends in CO2 emissions”

  1. 151
    flxible says:

    ccpo: My URL is available and provides a way to contact me, flxible, that doesn’t require searching about for it.

    Mailer-Daemon: “A message that you sent could not be delivered to one or more of its recipients. This is a permanent error. No such user here.”

  2. 152
    flxible says:

    Patrick – Furry might in the loop for PV life cycle questions, I’m just a user.

  3. 153
    Jerry says:

    It might indeed be pretty easy to generate a few tenths of an topsoil in your backyard of 1/4 acre. However, tell me how you are going to create the will and organization to do this over the whole earth (10’s of millions of square miles) including in places like the Sahara where there is no topsoil at all. More likely, deforestation and increased droughts are going to further diminish the world’s topsoil.

  4. 154
    ccpo says:

    Mailer-Daemon: “A message that you sent could not be delivered to one or more of its recipients. This is a permanent error. No such user here.”

    Comment by flxible — 25 June 2010 @ 8:24 AM

    In all this time I never noticed our IT guy messed that up. I wonder how many other e-mails never got delivered? You’re needing a dash twixt the i and the d.


  5. 155
    ccpo says:

    It might indeed be pretty easy to generate a few tenths of an topsoil in your backyard of 1/4 acre. However, tell me how you are going to create the will and organization to do this over the whole earth (10’s of millions of square miles) including in places like the Sahara where there is no topsoil at all. More likely, deforestation and increased droughts are going to further diminish the world’s topsoil.

    Comment by Jerry — 25 June 2010 @ 3:34 PM



  6. 156
    Kurt T. Francis says:

    gilles (Comment # 26), you wrote, in part, “. . . whereas I haven’t yet seen any proposal that it could be caused by the melting of northern sea ice (because only northern would matter, but not southern, of course).”

    It’s the parenthetical statement that caught my eye, since it clearly implies an event in the northern seas affect the situation only in northern climes, and, by logical extension, that any melting of southern sea ice affects only the southern seas.

    I don’t see how that’s possible. In a light (as opposed to sarcastic) way, let me point out there’s no “Great Wall of the Equator” that would prevent northern and southern waters from mutually affecting each other. After all, if we take a pan that’s a meter by a meter and place it astride the equator, with half in the northern hemisphere and the other half in the southern hemisphere, then place a block of ice in one end, assuming the air temperature is above freezing, the ice will melt sooner or later — and the resulting water will be uniformly distributed across the entire bottom of the pan, not confined to the end in which the ice block was originally placed.

    I keep thinking I must be misreading your comment, but if so, I can’t figure out where.

    Anyway, I left somewhat confused.

  7. 157
    Gilles says:

    Kurt, I never meant that there was a Great Wall all around the equator that would prevent southern hemisphere from communicating with northern one. if there is a wall, it’s only in front of the eyes of mass media who tend to look only at Arctic ocean or sometimes antarctic peninsula…. the whole sea ice extent is almost perfectly steady on average. But actually I don’t think most people’s life is influenced by that.

  8. 158
    greg keeley says:

    An interesting article in recent AIG News [newsletter of the Australian Institute of Geoscientists] re submarine volcanic contribution to total CO2 and difficulty involved in distinguishing anthropogenic CO2 from CO2 from other sources.



    Be interested in comments.

    [Response: Mostly nonsense I’m afraid. Volcanic CO2 is distinguishable from fossil fuel CO2 by virtue of the d13C isotopic ratio (fossil fuel or biospheric carbon is more depleted in 13C), and the reduction in O2 indicates that the extra CO2 is being oxidised in the atmosphere, not in the mantle. I would class this article at the Plimerian level. – gavin]

  9. 159
    Marco says:

    @Gavin (and Greg Keeley):
    You may have noted that Plimer and Wishart are quoted, which doesn’t do much good to its credibility. But who cares if volcanoes in reality do emit more CO2? The human emissions are *still* the main cause of atmospheric rise in CO2. And that’s simple accounting: the net increase is smaller than our human input, meaning that everything non-anthropogenic combined is a net sink.

    And there’s another accounting issue: if certain non-anthropogenic emissions are the main cause of atmospheric rise, this would mean there is a non-anthropogenic net sink that takes up more than 80% of anthropogenic emissions. Almost by necessity, that sink should also take up 80% of those net non-anthropogenic emitters. Combined this means there should be a sink somewhere that takes up something like 10 Gt/C a year (rough guestimate, may be more). Well, can anyone please point out that sink? The biosphere? I think we would have noticed if the biosphere increased by that much just about every year. The oceans? We should be able to measure changes in carbonate content with such huge numbers.