Are Greenhouse Gas Emissions Falling?

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The 2015 Paris Agreement on emissions reductions of greenhouse gases (GHG) was supposed to be a landmark agreement to avoid catastrophic global warming and to keep the global temperature increase ‘well below 2 degrees Celsius’ compared to preindustrial levels. The agreement also includes the goal to ‘pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees’, which would require a cut in GHG emissions of 50% by 2030.

Seven years later and half-way to the 2030 milestone, how are we travelling you may ask? Scientists view the 1.5 threshold as critical to avoid catastrophic climate change. Given all the additional focus on climate change and catastrophic weather events linked to global warming in recent years, surely we are reducing emissions already?

We are not.

The pandemic caused a brief dip in total fossil fuel based GHG emissions, but we made up for that 5% fall in 2020 by producing a 6% rise in 2021. The picture to the end of 2020 looks like this:

So globally we are still on the fast track to climate disaster, our present trajectory is in line with the IPCC ‘business as usual’ scenario and 3.2 degrees warming by the end of the century.

Given that both the US and EU have been trumpeting their emissions reductions, why are global emissions still rising and is China to blame?

Consumption-based vs. Production-based Emissions

The whole problem starts with the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) guidelines on national emissions accounting and reporting are written on the basis of production-based, rather than consumption-based emissions. What does that mean? It means that to reduce national emissions you can simply offshore production! And what have businesses in the US and EU being doing for the last 20 years? Sending production to China, and Vietnam, and India. All countries where GHG emissions are rising.

For the US, this leads to a very visible distortion in their ‘emissions reduction’ reporting:

Even if we look at the production-based metric, there is no consistent picture of reductions just before the pandemic:

Whilst there was a little bit more blue (reductions) in 2019 compared to 2018, as we saw earlier global emissions have rebounded strongly after the pandemic and are still rising overall.

Should we be surprised by any of this?

Not really. Every single country on this planet is still pursuing a strategy of economic growth (as measured by GDP). And GDP, even though it is measured using prices, is simply a reflection of the amount of energy used in the production of goods and services. World energy consumption and world GDP show an almost perfect correlation:

This would seemingly validate the strategy of transitioning to renewable energy as fast as possible to reduce GHG emissions. Prof Simon Michaux demonstrated recently in an exhaustive study that this is not going to happen, based both on the availability of the needed metals and their rate of production (mining).

What is going to happen instead?

This is conjecture of course, as predictions about the future are notoriously unreliable. It is probably reasonable to make a few assumptions based on how humans have acted so far, as we have known about global warming since the 1960s. It’s probably also useful to take into account historical precedents, as many societies have collapsed in the past due to exceeding non-renewable or renewable resources. So based on that, here are a few ‘predictions’:

  1. We will continue to pursue economic growth until we start running out of fossil fuels

This should not be overly contentious. No politician is going to get elected (or even nominated) by promising to cut GDP by 50% by 2030. It doesn’t matter if that’s in a democracy or autocracy or a single-party state. It’s not going to happen until it becomes obvious to everyone.

  1. We will continue to invest in renewable energy until we run out of metals to mine at a price we can afford with diminishing deposits and fossil fuels

This should also not be contentious as we have been doing this for a while now and have just started to run into supply limits. Lithium prices went up 220% this year and it was called a ‘supply shock’. It’s not. It’s a totally predictable market response to exponentially rising demand for batteries running into a highly constrained supply. Mining lithium is a slow process and good deposits are rare.

  1. Economic growth will slow as energy resources (especially oil) diminish and then go into reverse, as renewables will not be able to make up for the shortfall

We have talked about this in Why Industrial Civilisation Depends on Oil and Is Collapse Inevitable. There are good reasons to believe that oil production peaked in 2018, we will know for sure by 2025.

  1. At that point we will probably start all sorts of wars and massively accelerate the decline by destroying existing infrastructure that we will be unable to replace

This prediction is based on what has happened before. If you are keen on learning the grim details of what happens when our living standards drop suddenly, I would recommend Global Crisis by Geoffrey Parker. It describes the Little Ice Age in the 17th century and how it led to endless wars and a decline in the human population of somewhere between 30 and 50%.

  1. There is a good chance of catastrophic collapse, wiping out 80% or more of the human population

This is speculation, of course. But if the models are right, then we have a) picked the wrong starting point to avoid catastrophic collapse and b) already passed the point where you could engineer a soft landing. Starting with a highly unequal society makes catastrophic collapse more likely and overshooting resource extraction leads to a faster and deeper collapse.

What Can We Do?

Other than not behave like modern humans, not much. Graeber and Wengrow have presented ample of evidence in The Dawn of Everything that humans were not always this stupid when it comes to social systems and submitting to authority. We used to have all sorts of much more flexible and equitable social arrangements until the current model of hierarchical authority, massive bureaucracies and competitive politics (elections) won on a global scale some 500 years ago. For example, there used to be massive societies without any hierarchical authority and societies that only had ‘play kings’ or seasonal rulers. Such societies were widespread in North America until the Europeans arrived.

The global victory of the current system is not reversible by democratic or rational means, too many people stand to lose too much to let that happen, starting with the top 0.01% and including the top 10-15% in most countries. We will most likely continue on this trajectory until the human population has declined enough to force the elites to change course. That’s what happened in the Little Ice Age and I see no reason why it would be any different this time around. The problem is that waiting that long would make catastrophic collapse inevitable.

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Peter Lanius

Peter Lanius is a physicist by training who has worked in IT, Telecoms and as an executive coach across many industries. He believes in collapsing early to avoid the rush and lives on a 20acre property in regional Australia.