The China Syndrome

Some would like to imply that the problem of CO2 emissions is mainly due to China and India. They are, after all, the 1st- and 3rd-largest total emitters as of 2009, and their CO2 emissions are growing fast. In fact I often hear the complaint that nothing anybody does will make any difference unless China and India go along with the plan. I think this is a just an excuse to argue against doing anything, and I think it’s a lousy excuse.

But the facts remain, that China and India are 1st and 3rd on the list of total emissions, and their CO2 output is growing fast. How fast? EIA provides data on total emissions, for the world and by country, so we can compare them directly.

The top 3 nations for total emissions are China, the U.S., and India. But it’s more representative to say that the top 2 are China and the U.S., because India is far behind. In fact emissions from Russia are only slightly less than those from India, and until recently were greater. Here are total emissions from the top 3 nations from 1980 through 2009:

Clearly China and the U.S. dominate, although the Indian contribution is substantial. We can also compare how the cumulative effect of the top 3 emitters compares to total world emissions:

Together, the top 3 are responsible for nearly half the world’s CO2 emissions.

On that basis, one might think that China and the U.S. are the biggest problems for CO2 emissions. That might even be right, although there are other factors to consider. One might even think that China is the real problem, because they’ve surpassed the U.S. and their emissions are still rising fast.

But the main other fact in play is population. China has a much larger population than the U.S. — so does India — and if we compute emissions per capita we get a dramatically different picture of who’s dumping CO2 into the atmosphere most prodigiously:

In my opinion, it’s the entire world that needs to reduce CO2 emissions. The greatest burden should fall on the shoulders of both the nations that have the largest total emissions, and those with the largest total per capita emissions.

That means that it’s critically important for China to slow their growth of emissions, and eventually (soon!) to reduce them. The same goes for India. Both are huge emitters, and both have huge nations which, through wise administration, can organize effective action on national scales to reduce the danger we all face, together, from global warming. Let’s put pressure on both China and India to face the problem and actually do something about it.

But the one nation that has the greatest responsibility to take the most extreme action is the nation that is near the top of both lists, total and per-capita emissions. The one nation that talks louder than any other about how great they are, about how they can accomplish so much, about how moral they are. That’s the United States.

Is it all just talk? Just smoke and mirrors? Are we really a great nation, or are we just selfish and greedy? If we want to be leaders of the world, let’s lead by example. If the U.S.A is such a great country, if we’re really able to accomplish so much, let’s prove it. It’s time to put our money where our mouth is.

Or are we not good enough?


96 responses to “The China Syndrome

  1. Daniel Bailey

    I’m watching Earth 2100 right now, and in it they share the fact that if the entire world consumed as Americans do, it would take the resources of 4 Earths to supply the demand.

    I think we’re too damn selfish to keep the car from driving straight off the cliff because we like driving the car too much.

    The Yooper

    • This is a very common misconception. If you look at the time that Earth need to put petrol in the ground, and the speed with which humans pump it out again, it takes about a MILLION earths to be sustainable.

      • Daniel Bailey

        Actually, the program in question was primarily dealing with grain raised to supply the need for meat vs that directly consumed by people. If fossil fuels were included in that estimate, it was unspecified.

        My car analogy was related to the mindset only.

  2. At the end of the day, it’s the cumulative emissions that are the problem. We are at about 390ppm CO2 now, up from about 280ppm pre-industrial. This increase in CO2 is a very significant part of the climate problem, and it’s well worth considering the role that countries had in getting us to that concentration.

    Any chance of adding such an analysis Tamino? Hansen has a pie graph of cummulative emissions which I found here:

  3. Tamino,
    Thanks for this, but: Hasn’t the Western world merely exported its emissions to China, India et al.? Surely, if we just get another country to make our stuff, rather making it ourselves, all we have done is change the locations to the other side of the world, meanwhile incurring a shipload of (plus aviation) transport emissions. Is it likely the atmosphere will be fooled?

    Growth in emission transfers via international trade from 1990 to 2008
    Peters et al. (2011)

    H/T BBC

  4. From memory, here in Australia we actually have slightly higher per-capita emissions than even the US (thanks to our reliance on coal-fired electricity – no nuclear at all, and not much hydro). The only thing that saves us from topping the list of those obligated to act is the fact that we’ve got barely 1/15th the population of the USA.

    Not that that excuses us – especially given the number of renewable energy innovations from here that have basically had to head to the US or China to get any funding at all. The previous government had a “Low Emissions Technology Fund”, for supporting low-carbon energy projects. Only $10 million got spent out of $500m promised, and that went on tests of a carbon capture scheme for a brown-coal power plant (the dirtiest of dirty electricity!)

    • Bernard J.

      But Bern, even if we tax our emissions to reduce our carbon output, we won’t make a scrap of difference to global temperature, and we’ll roon the econonomy in the process!

      Tony Abbott, Andrew Bolt, Joanne Codling, and a host of other scientific geniuses have repeatedly told us this, therefore it must be true.

  5. Take a hint from Europe: be a lot of separate nations so nobody notices your total.

    • Try per capita figures, then how “small” you are doesn’t matter.

      No, doesn’t help you. Sorry.

    • BS–Europe as a whole will meet Kyoto targets (though not all member nations will.)

      In the developed world, Europe has done relatively well WRT carbon footprint.

      Near the bottom of the list is my country, Canada. I love her, but we Canadians agreed to targets then failed–spectacularly!–to live up to our word. IIRC, Canada–thanks largely to the increasing importance of oilsands petroleum–has had the worst increase since ’90 of just about any Kyoto signatory, or close to it.

      The worst failure of leadership is probably still American, but Canadians should really be hanging our heads on carbon footprint (and some of us are.) Few nations have done worse than we have.

  6. Regardless of whether you Murricans are “good” or not, how exactly would Mr. Tamino actually orchestrate a change this massive without a HUGE reduction in our living standards – AND without a massive societal destabilization usually following changes this drastic? Or, in other words, would Mr. Tamino be willing to risk an all-out civil war in the West as an outcome?

    Just askin’…

    [Response: I guess finding a way to reduce emissions dramatically without living in caves eating nothing but roots and tubers, is just too difficult for you. So much for ‘murricans being so damn good at everything.

    So, is your vote for “We’re too greedy and selfish” or just for “We’re not good enough”? Just askin’.]

    • TrueSceptic

      This is exactly the point! More than any other nation, Americans have become used to cheap energy over such a long period that it has become a part of the culture, something literally taken for granted.

      America also has a large proportion of the scientists best able to come up with solutions to the energy problem (it is a problem regardless of global warming because fossil fuels are not an infinite resource). What is the cause of the disconnect? Is it educational standards? Too strong a link between politics and business? Too much respect given to irrational beliefs, probably more than in any other advanced nation?

      Or does it really just boil down to personal greed?

    • Caves don’t sound great but in Ireland before the famine tubers could support a large population density. See The use of the potato crop in pre-famine Ireland by P.M. Austin Bourke.

      A renewed focus on local food will be necessary when the end of cheap oil brings an end to globalisation – OK, not all globalisation but much of it.

      Soon, production from cheap oil sources won’t satisfy our demand and Brazil, Russia, India and China are using more oil as they get richer. That’s less supply and more demand.

      I understand “murricans” are complaining about the possibility of the $6 gallon. What will the West’s economies do at $10, $20, $30 a gallon? How will we feed ourselves? Potatoes can be very nutritious.

      • Well, we already have $10 gas here in Germany. As far as I can tell the economy has not imploded and we are still a first-world country.

        But maybe I’m just seeing things.

    • “…is just too difficult for you.”

      A distinct possibility, unless you really have some practical and verifiable ideas of how to go about it. So I’ll just ask again in the (possibly vain) hope of you not sidestepping the question this time:

      How exactly would you actually orchestrate a change this massive without a HUGE reduction in our living standards – AND without a massive societal destabilization usually following changes this drastic?

      [Response: Reducing global warming is the only way to AVOID huge reduction in our living standards.

      It’s not a choice between making sacrifices and not. The choice is to make livable sacrifices now, or the keep up “business as usual” until catastrophe arrives. If you *really* want to end up living in caves scraping the dirt for roots to eat, then keep doin’ what you’re doin’.

      And as for sacrifices, God forbid you should have to give up your SUV or the family vacation to Disney World just so some whiny kids can avoid starving to death. Especially since those whiny kids will be your own grandchildren.]

      • How exactly would you actually orchestrate a change this massive without a HUGE reduction in our living standards?

        I assume “you” means someone or an organisation with some clout, e.g. a government.

        Start by telling some truths. Then encourage the development of a diverse gene pool of lifestyles to find the ones that are pleasant, desirable, idyllic &etc which also don’t destroy our planet.

        Remember that if you crash your car it’s a contributor to economic growth, which is seen as a measure of our living standards. We have to change this mentality and design economic systems that counteract the mess that our present system creates.

        On a macro level, an obvious start is a large carbon tax where the proceeds are used to cut the cost of labour so that full employment is maintained. At a local level we must use a variety of enconomic and legal restraints to create the lifestyle gene pool – different ones to find out what works. It is essential to add the enviromental costs of each.

        Personally I see no problem with
        No beef, No planes, No cars, No bottles

        These are things I would accept to keep within the earth’s environmental limits and still have a better lifestyle than I do now.

        What’s your vision?

        P.S. The advertising budgets for selling thes ideas should be as big as the combined budget of those industries that are selling us polluting lifestyles.

  7. Is the EU considered a single economy for these charts, or is it fragmented into individual nations?

  8. Not to mention we can influence both, if necessary, by putting a carbon tariff on their emissions equivalent to $150 for every ton of CO2 emitted in their manufacture. Let that be the stick if they won’t follow the carrot.

    • $150/ton amounts to little more than 50 cents/gallon of gas. That’s not enough to change people’s driving behavior.

      • A questionable assumption. I think that the last 50 cents of increase have had some impact; certainly they’ve gotten people’s attention.

        And don’t forget that in a lot of jurisdictions, it would presumably be 50 cents before gas taxes, so the $.50 would be ‘leveraged.’

      • Andrew Dodds

        In the UK, we have £1.40/litre petrol.. approx $8.60 per US gallon.

        Last time I worked it out, if you combine the resulting improvement in fleet efficiency and tendency to shorter journeys, an effective tax of $5/gallon (US) would end up cutting consumption by half (although with only 2 data points this is not quite statistically significant..)

        The interesting thing here is the influence of cultural factors. Try suggesting to the average SUV owner in the US that switching to diesel would be a good idea – much more suitable engines, and double the fuel economy – and you get a lot of what can only be described as cultural resistance.

      • Diesel is great stuff. Unfortunately one only gets a certain number of gallons of diesel from a barrel of oil, so there would be a supply problem at some point.

      • Diesel can come from biomass. I believe the Jatropha tree is a source.

      • Dieter Donnert

        Diesel has about 12% more energy than gasoline. Bio-diesel has about 5% more energy than gasoline. I’m using base gasoline(114,000BTU/USgal) which hasn’t been cut with alcohol to do the math.

  9. You can also count total emissions through history for each country, and then China ends up a lot lower. Their emissions are high partly because they are building an infrastructure that older industrial countries already have in place. We don’t have to build so may houses any more, because we already have houses with decent standard for our population. We already have roads and railroads and so on. Add in that the production of much of what we in the West consume is outsourced to China and the situation becomes even more lopsided.

  10. If one takes into account the outsourcing of manufacturing to China from the USA, then the figures for the USA look even worse.

    • TrueSceptic

      You know, I bet not many realise that.

      I wonder what proportion of China’s CO2 output results from manufacturing products that the “West” (USA and Europe) consumes but no longer makes.

  11. carrot eater

    The comparison between these metrics is important as it is a good illustration of a basic problem: emissions don’t care about political boundaries, but decisions are made at the national level. China could get off the top spot by simply breaking up into 4 chunks, and total emissions wouldn’t change. Not that they’d want to, but they could.

    I think Australia also fares quite poorly on the per-capita metric, but barely shows up on the per-country metric.

    Another difficult point is the how to account for international trade. Australia exports coal to China, where it is burned as the Chinese produce goods to export to the US. So whose emissions are those, exactly? Australia? China? USA? Politically, we can argue about that all day long, but the atmosphere doesn’t care.

    But the per-GDP breakdown is also important. Show that, and you might see that after the oil shocks of the 1970s, many countries found ways to use less fossil fuels to produce the same amount of economic output. While one might try to argue that this came in part from a shift from manufacturing to services in the western world, it also came from the more efficient use of fuels. Efficiency gains are still there to be had – and they would save the user money – these are the true low hanging fruits of emissions cuts. This gives the lie to the idiotic notion that efforts to reduce emissions necessarily means living the same life as our ancestors lived in 1750. It does not mean that at all, as can be seen from the numerous economic projections of the costs and benefits of emission reductions. Given that economics involves the study of human behavior and not physics, there are large uncertainties there in the costs and benefits. But regardless of that, we can say with confidence that we can still have global economic growth while working to restrain emissions, despite what the carnival barkers tell you.

    • The “send us back to 1750 [or the stone age]” meme always amuses me. People who push that are, obviously, ignoring such things as solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, geothermal and other non-carbon energy sources.

      It really does seem to come down to Tamino’s question to MS above: are people too greedy & selfish, or do they really think they’re not good enough? (I vote for the former, myself – depressing as that is)

      • It also ignores the standard of living that existed before fossil fuels permeated every crevice of American life. The standard of living was pretty good then, and obviously not every improvement since then will be lost.

        But yes, standard-of-living alarmism is commonplace.

  12. The USA is a great country!
    OK, they didn’t join the Kyoto protocol, but they had a much better idea:
    They started an international financial and economic crisis in 2008, which caused impressing cuts in CO2-emissions.

  13. Gapmainder (Hans Rosling’s tool) has a nice animated graph of the historical emissions of some countries

  14. You can find figures for the European Union up to 2007 here (hope link comes out OK). Since the EU countries have agreed on common goals for greenhouse gas emissions, it makes sense to regard them as one country in this context.

    In this case, the EU would be third in the world, with emissions, with emissions of ~4.2Gt in 2007, corresponding to 8.5t per capita, which is about half of the U.S. and 50% more than China (in 2009).

  15. Never mind the different metrics, angles and spin.

    There’s one thing that’s absolutely certain, and that is that each and every nation is properly responsible for 100% of their own damn emissions.

    It’s wrong, stupid and meretricious to argue for one second that the size of anyone else’s emissions has anything to do with one’s own responsibility. Anyone would see this in everyday life, and it’s depressing that scale (or more likely, rationalization based upon convenience and self-interest) defeats logic here.

    I mean, if someone, confronted with their failure to pick up after their Corgi, were to argue that it didn’t matter because another neighbor habitually failed to pick up after their Great Dane, we’d think they were absolutely nuts. And probably a total jerk, too.

    Doing the right thing does not depend upon whether or not the outcome is efficacious. It’s still the right thing–period, full stop.

  16. LazyTeenager

    Well I am pretty pessimistic about the rise of Chinese CO2 output but I don’t see it as an excuse to sit on our hands.

    The most disturbing thing about this arises when greenies promote increased efficiency as the answer to all our problems, often with the implicit agenda of avoiding having nuclear in the mix.

    The problem is efficiency does not scale, it’s up against the limitations of the laws of thermodynamics. Projected Chinese growth makes efficiency improvements very nearly irrelevant.

    • There *are* huge gains to be made by pursuing efficiency – the amount of wastage of energy in many countries is just about criminal, e.g. using oil to fire a furnace to heat a house that’s poorly insulated in a cold climate, or coal to generate electricity to run airconditioning for a poorly insulated house in a hot climate.

      I read a story just a few days ago about a house here in Australia that has a 1.5kW solar panel system on the roof – and the owners expected to not draw any net power from the grid (i.e. their excess daytime generation more than outweighed their night-time usage). I’ve been in houses where the *bathroom* drew more power than that…

      There are also massive gains to be realised in commercial & industrial use – the journal of Engineers Australia ran a whole series of articles a few years ago about energy effiency programs. Some cost as much as $150,000 – $200,000 to implement, but had paid themselves off in only 2-3 years by savings on electricity & gas.

      I think it’s quite plausible to see demand reductions of 20-30%, if energy efficiency programs are vigorously pursued. Certainly not enough to let us continue to burn fossil fuels with impunity, but it’ll make the job of replacing them that much easier.

  17. LazyTeenager

    Andreas says:
    April 30, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    They started an international financial and economic crisis in 2008, which caused impressing cuts in CO2-emissions.
    Well they tried and failed to produce “Great Depression II” so I reckon they will try again. Last time it was mortgage denial. Next time it will be “Peak Oil”, and “Dustbowl, The Upgrade”.

    Should be a great success!

    • Last week I attended the 9th Annual Conference of The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas where I heard the financial crisis of 2008 was triggered by a rapid change in the price of oil. It was made much worse by the difficulties with financial derivatives but it was the oil price rise that did it by slowing the economy so that people could not pay their mortgages. Nearly all previous recessions followed oil price rises.

      I believed what I heard.

      We’ed better get off the oil fix quick.

      The correct economic response to long term oil shortages is to tax oil heavily and use the revenue to create jobs (e.g. by making labour cheaper to employ) in addition to pump priming renewables.

      Remember the race to cross the USA with railways. Remember the moon shot. Remember the devleopment of the silicon chip. That’s the scale of effort needed.

      • Bernard J.

        I’m not an economist, but if the recent financial crisis had its roots in rising oil prices, then there’s a little whisper in the back of my head that wonders what real long-term benefit the various rescue/stimulus packages will have, and whether there is now actually any additional resilience in the world’s economies to future oil shocks.

        Is there an economics-savvy person here who could deconstruct the issue?

        Most especially, I am wondering how a current lack of effort to develop non-fossil fuel energy will synergise with manifesting climate (and consequent ecological, hydrological, and agricultural) changes.

        I can’t put my finger on it, or elucidate the relationships that are tapping at my brain, but it would seem to me that the First World response a couple of years ago has welded us to greater magnitudes of oil shock down the track, and primed us for greater economic consequences to such shocks. I see the fuzzy (to me) shadow of inappropriate economic policy piled on top of more inappropriate economic policy.

        Can anyone unpick my hazy economic thinking?

      • I’m not an economist

        Don’t lie to me.

        Yes you are.

        A rather good one.

        Have you seen the latest Climate Progress

  18. China is in the midst of its industrial revolution, and the U.S is not at liberty to criticize China for emitting emissions, because it does the same thing. Right now, China, as opposed to the U.S, is looking into investing in clean energy, and it hopes to change its energy consumption ways. Global citizens need to put more pressure on their governments so that we can all live in a better planet

  19. Lazy,

    It’s disturbing to me when nuke freaks insist the future mix MUST include nuclear–the power source which is most expensive, takes longest to build, and three times has resulted in radioactive isotopes being spewed all over the landscape.

  20. John Brookes

    I find it somewhat depressing that here in Australia both political parties are committed to reducing our emissions by 5% in the next 9 years. That is not the depressing bit, no, the depressing bit is that the current government is planning to do it by purchasing emissions permits from other countries. That is, it won’t be us reducing our emissions at all.

    The only positive spin you can put on it is that it is a modest target designed to encourage other countries to join in, and that if enough countries join in, more ambitious targets will be set.

  21. MrCannucistan

    It’s personal greed. You can only lead people somewhere when that somewhere is perceived to be better than where they are. America is touted as the greatest country on earth. Why would anyone want to be lead out of the Garden of Eden?


  22. Ray Ladbury

    Lazy Teenager,
    Not true. Efficiency does scale. Increase efficiency in transport and the cost of goods decreases, leaving more money for investment in efficiency.

    Are you aware of Rosenfeld’s Law–it shows that energy per $ of GDP decreases by 1% a year. If we can understand this and accelerate it, then we are on the early portion of technological revolution like the semiconductor revolution. Don’t underestimate negawatts.

  23. I agree Kevin,

    Also, it matters little who is responsible, only how we are to save our world from ruin. The historical or size issue is only relevant to how much reduction is currently required at this point in time. We still have to make the reductions, whatever they are.

    The argument that we will all be living in caves if we do this is realy quite short sighted… If we don’t do this the human population WILL all be living in caves (much reduced in numbers) only it will happen catastrophically. If we bite the bullet now we have a chance of saving something.

    I love the data on EIA very useful. Thanks Tamino


    “When there’s something that you can do for yourself that will save your life & give you back your health–it’s not challenging–it’s common-sense.
    … the compliance rate has been a high 92%–because these patients saw the results they got with a plant-based diet–over the alternatives. They were able to avoid surgery, stents, and drugs in favor of the no-side effects of a plant-based diet.”

  25. LazyTeenager

    Bern says
    I think it’s quite plausible to see demand reductions of 20-30%, if energy efficiency programs are vigorously pursued.
    I agree that 20-30% is plausible. But I am pretty sure that Chinese growth will outstrip that by a big margin.

    [Response: All the more reason for us to implement the 20-30% efficiency improvements, as quickly as possible.]

    • Have you heard of rebound effects?

      The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) has launched a major new report on how ‘Rebound Effects’ can result in energy savings falling short of expectations, thereby threatening the success of UK climate policy.

      An example of a rebound effect would be the driver who replaces a car with a fuel-efficient model, only to take advantage of its cheaper running costs to drive further and more often. Or a family that insulates their loft and puts the money saved on their heating bill towards an overseas holiday.

      The Rebound Effect Report

      It’s not just efficiency that’s needed but also economic incentives to use less energy and create less pollution.

      • But if you’re talking about reducing energy consumption by 20-30% for things that people already do when energy cost isn’t a major consideration, then that will have a significant impact.

        It also means substantial cost reductions for businesses – as most businesses wouldn’t increase their activity without, say, additional orders, then a 30% increase in efficiency is a 30% reduction in energy cost & CO2 emissions.

      • Bern

        But if you’re talking about reducing energy consumption by 20-30% for things that people already do when energy cost isn’t a major consideration, then that will have a significant impact.

        With that little bit of extra cash saved I’ll fly to Spain.

        It also means substantial cost reductions for businesses – as most businesses wouldn’t increase their activity without, say, additional orders, then a 30% increase in efficiency is a 30% reduction in energy cost & CO2 emissions.

        They would get additional orders as competition forced their prices down… and I’ll fly to Rio not Spain.

  26. David B. Benson

    Barton Paul Levenson | May 1, 2011 at 10:46 am — Large dams take longer and cost more. But most important to understand is that, by far, the major contribution of radioactive isotopes (and lots of other horrible stuff, not to mention CO2) is burning coal.

    If a society wants reliable on-demand electric power (all seem to), then the choices for baseload are only
    hydro (almost maxed out in the USA),
    Take your pick.

    • I really do think this is incorrect. The problems with the intermittency of renewables are real, but will be–and are being–solved. Since most of the methodologies involved have already been discussed, I’ll refrain from listing them again.

      (Given how fast we need to move, though, I do think some nuclear power will be–and probably will need to be–part of the mix.)

  27. LazyTeenager

    Barton Paul Levenson says:
    May 1, 2011 at 10:46 am

    It’s disturbing to me when nuke freaks insist the future mix MUST include nuclear–the power source which is most expensive, takes longest to build, and three times has resulted in radioactive isotopes being spewed all over the landscape.
    I am very well aware of the risk factors associated with nuclear power. I am also inclined to partially discount the fears associated with it due to the emotional hangovers from the cold war.

    Personally I would prefer that we move to zero-carbon footprint processes now, this minute. If nuclear is needed then we should grit our teeth and pay the price.

  28. DBB,

    I’ll take gas. That can come from biomass eventually. BTW, geothermal also provides baseline power.

  29. Ray Ladbury

    Barton, you might want to look at the experience of New Zealand with Rotorua. Geothermal wound up being a lot more finite than they had thought.

    Nukes will always be suspect until we find a cure for

    However, even if we maximize negawatts, I don’t see how we provide a decent standard of living to 10 billion people without it.

  30. Ray,

    The mean sunlight absorbed at Earth’s surface is 161.2 watts per square meter (Trenberth et al. 2009). The Earth’s surface is 5.1007 x 10^14 m^2. Land surface is 29.2% (Sellers 1965). Assume 10% efficiency. The available power is then 2.4 x 10^15 watts. Human consumption of all forms of energy is now about 1.6 x 10^13 watts. The available power is thus 150 times what we need.

    Assume GWP and population both double. Then it would only be 37.5 times as much as we need.

    Wind is about 5-10% what we can get from Solar, which is still substantial.

    Add in geothermal and biomass. Plus minor contributions from tidal, wave, and other exotica.

    No, you don’t NEED nuclear.

    • Ray Ladbury

      I’m aware of the numbers. I’m also aware that turning the incident sunlight into usable, reliable power is not trivial or solved. I think that renewables are much more doable in developing countries where there is no legacy infrastructure and where expectations may be lower.

      In the industrial world, people expect lights to come on when they flip a switch. I don’t know how you do that purely with renewables, and you don’t either. It is not enough to handwave. We have to get this right or the political backlash will kill the nascent growth of a new energy infrastructure.

      I’m fully aware of the difficulties of nukes. You have to solve the stupid problem along with all the technical problems. And if you establish nukes as the basis of the new infrastructure, you create a new energy interest that will fight eventual conversion to renewables.

      Renewables, though, are also a long way from ready for prime time. Balancing a grid with highly variable generation nodes is not easy.

      The problem is that both sides handwave their way through difficulties, as if they assume they will all melt away with just a little funding. I’m not seeing it. The way things look right now, we will do nothing and simply wait for our current energy infrastructure to collapse–and that will not be pretty with 10 billion people on the planet.

  31. A more relevant metric for those interested in the ‘blame game’ is the amount of excess (modern – preindustrial) CO2 concentration in the air, taking into account the long residence time of the CO2 perturbation. This is dominated by the U.K. and U.S., and very little to do with China. Of course, they will matter for the future. Unfortunately, we still care about political boundaries and finger pointing– atmospheric physics does not.

  32. Didactylos

    Barton Paul Levenson: Please remind the class how many people have died as a result of nuclear power generation, and how many people have died as a result of renewable (hydro, wind and solar) power generation.

    Yeah. So now what? Going to eat your words?

  33. As often happens, the discussion has turned to the pro- and anti- side of nuclear power. And, things have gotten a bit heated.

    Let’s break with tradition, and keep it exceptionally civil.

  34. Did: So now what? Going to eat your words?

    BPL: No, but you can do what the cake told Alice.

  35. Should I worry about nuclear power and the increased chance of tsunamis in the North Sea coming from the seas around Norway – possibly prompted by increased seismic activity caused by climate change?

    See The cost of energy security

  36. David B. Benson

    Barton Paul Levenson | May 2, 2011 at 9:41 am — Yes, a boutrique amount can come from geothermal, too small a % to be worth mentioning. Unfortunately, there simply is not enough NPP to replace very much natgas with biomethane; I’ve previiously and elsewhere cranked the numbers. And, by the way, burning any source of methane is still burning, hence emits NOx, a major component of photochemical smog.

    Kevin McKinney | May 2, 2011 at 10:12 pm — To be definite, consider wind as we have quite a bit of it around here. The wind is considered to have a capacity factor of 32% which means 68% of the time the power is coming from somewhere else. I listed the four alternatives for that somewhere else; take your pick. [The situation here in the Pacific Northwest is that other aspects of hydro operations means that wind/hydro power ratio is limited to 1/10. The remaining wind is backed by fossil fuel burners.]

    • DBB, you wrote:

      The wind is considered to have a capacity factor of 32% which means 68% of the time the power is coming from somewhere else.

      . . . and disappointed the heck out of me. This is a misconception common to a lot of folks, who, however, are not nearly as sharp as you are. Here’s a definition of “capacity factor”:

      “The net capacity factor of a power plant is the ratio of the actual output of a power plant over a period of time and its potential output if it had operated at full nameplate capacity the entire time.”

      This says nothing at all about what percentage of the time the plant is operating, or about the relation its output bears to the needs of the local energy market. A plant may have a capacity factor of 32% by a) operating at 100% output 32% of the time, or b) operating at 32% output 100% of the time, or c) any combination of numbers that multiply out to that 32%. Most of the latter will probably be more realistic than the two extreme cases.

      However, the more closely the real situation approaches case b), the more completely the market need can (in theory at least) by solved by overbuilding wind capacity: it’s easy to see that if you actually could have a real “case B” situation, you could then supply the whole energy market with wind energy by building out 3 times the demand.

      But while case B is admittedly unrealistic, so is your case A. There are real problems with intermittency. But an “off” cycle of 70-80% is not one of them.

      On another (tangentially related) topic, has anyone thought of using molten salts to store *wind*-generated energy as heat? Would it work, from a conversion efficiency point of view?

      • Feh.

        Should have written: “. . . the more completely the market need can (in theory at least) be met. . .”

        And, while I’m commenting upon my comment, I’ll add that the “in theory at least” bit is a nod to the fact that good wind sites are not an infinite resource, either.

      • TrueSceptic

        Can renewables become the dominant energy source without efficient energy storage? Storing heat must be the worst possible option, even ignoring conversion losses. Does anything beat pumping water uphill for simplicity, reliability, and safety?

  37. David, geothermal can take much, if not most of the fossil fuel burned for home heating out of the equation.

    • David B. Benson

      Geothermal means energy extracted from well below ground; there isn’t that much available. I agree that heat pumps, preferably ground heat pumps (often misktakenly called geothermal), are an efficient way to move heat around.

      • And with proper passive design of buildings, you don’t even need to move much heat around!

      • Ray Ladbury

        Yes, except most existing buildings are not properly designed.

        This is the thing most people don’t seem to get: We aren’t building a society from scratch. We are trying to build a new energy infrastructure on an existing society that is already heavily dependent on the current energy infrastructure. It’s a much more difficult problem.

        This is one reason why I think it might be easier to develop an infrastructure in the third world–currently lacking much needed infrastructure. They get development in return for not burning fossil fuels. We get time to adapt our existing infrastructure to new realities.

      • Call it what ever you like, David, but those heat pumps extract heat from the ground, making it a form of geothermal. Residential and commercial space heating accounts for in the neighborhood of 10% of CO2 emissions, much of which could be eliminated by ground source geothermal.

      • luminous beauty


        Geothermal means energy extracted from well below ground; there isn’t that much available.


        A 2006 report by MIT,[31] and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, conducted the most comprehensive analysis to date on the potential and technical status of EGS. The 18-member panel, chaired by Professor Jefferson Tester of MIT, reached several significant conclusions:

        Resource Size: The report calculated the United States total EGS resources from 3–10 km of depth to be over 13,000 zettajoules, of which over 200 ZJ would be extractable, with the potential to increase this to over 2,000 ZJ with technology improvements — sufficient to provide all the world’s current energy needs for several millennia.[31] The report found that total geothermal resources, including hydrothermal and geo-pressured resources, to equal 14,000 ZJ — or roughly 140,000 times the total U.S. annual primary energy use in 2005.
        Development Potential: With a modest R&D investment of $1 billion over 15 years (or the cost of one coal power plant), the report estimated that 100 GWe (gigawatts of electricity) or more could be installed by 2050 in the United States. The report further found that the “recoverable” resource (that accessible with today’s technology) to be between 1.2–12.2 TW for the conservative and moderate recovery scenarios respectively.
        Cost: The report found that EGS could be capable of producing electricity for as low as 3.9 cents/kWh. EGS costs were found to be sensitive to four main factors: 1) Temperature of the resource, 2) Fluid flow through the system measured in liters/second, 3) Drilling Costs, and 4) Power conversion efficiency

  38. The analysis of who’s responsible for which fraction of the problem is all fine and sound, but with respect to China and India I think what worries people most is the projected trajectory of future emissions.

    If you look at projected GDP for the world’s countries ( ), and taking into account that emissions scale with both GDP and population (as per the Kaya identity, ) it is very likely that future emissions will be dominated by SE Asia.

    That of course doesn’t change the fact (or better, moral principle) that everybody has to do their part.

  39. I’m not remembering if it was here, a while back, that we were discussing wind power and the stability thereof under climate change.

    At any rate, there’s a study just out on that topic:

  40. David B. Benson

    Kevin McKinney | May 3, 2011 at 4:28 pm — My point is correct even if somewhat poorly stated. To begin, notice the patterns of our 32% wind:

    Assume a constant load for simplicity and further just consider a load which can be met by wind alone when operating at nameplate rating. Then averaged over a year, say, 32% of that load is met via wind and 68% of it is met by something else.

    TrueSceptic | May 3, 2011 at 11:24 pm —- Storage is, unfortuantely, quite expensive:

    Click to access Doty-90377-Storage-ASME-ES10.pdf

    and in the United States the 40+ existing pumped hydro stations occupy almost all the available good sites.

    Actually, concentrated solar thermal can for little extra cost be equipped with a moderate molten salt thermal store; the longest time the store can be used (in construction so far) is 7.5 hours. Such units have rather high LCOE but are intended to be used against peak loads during the day and again in the evening. They work fine as long as the sun shines for most of the day; on cloudy days the peaking power has to come from some other generator, typically a natgas unit.

    • “Assume a constant load for simplicity and further just consider a load which can be met by wind alone when operating at nameplate rating. Then averaged over a year, say, 32% of that load is met via wind and 68% of it is met by something else.”

      In this case, you’d just build nameplate x 3.125, and hey presto, problem solved (which is the scenario I mentioned in the previous comment as “case B.”)

      Of course, it’s not that easy, but I think the idea dramatizes the danger of getting hung-up purely on capacity factor. It doesn’t uniquely determine what percentage of power you can supply via wind, since nameplate capacity has no fixed relationship with load.

      Thanks for posting the graph from the BPA; it’s very interesting. The pattern for wind output is much more like my case A above–not surprising when you drill down and see that the windfarms are not all that dispersed. But that means that for the BPA , they can’t presently rely too much on wind. For them, capacity factor really isn’t isn’t too far off downtime . Looking at the curves for load and various types of generation, it seems it’s not a problem for them, now, though; since BPA is a net exporter, they basically just sell their wind output.

      But if they build more widely dispersed windfarms, the curves will come to resemble Case B more than Case A. For example, here’s a quick and dirty Excel graph I did of Ontario’s wind output. (It was supposed to be from inception to the present, but Excel cuts it off at 32,000 data points, and I haven’t bothered to check exactly when that cut-off was–call the graph “2006-up-to-a-couple-of-years-ago.” It’ll illustrate the point as is.)


      Still variable, you still need to do something with the peak power and you still need to have backup. But it’s not off/on.

  41. First: Wind resources are not scarce world-wide, the main problem is not regulation/intermittence, but building and energy transportation costs for (floating) offshore wind. And it’s mainly a question of money, has very little to do with “keeping our living standards” and all that.

    Second: There is already a number of technologies in place and use for regulating variable solar/wind/wave/etc power. Pumped hydro is a very simple one. Biogas power plants another (today mostly using natural gas, but this will change). Also actual: heat/molten salts, H2-production and use in fuel cells/combustion. Also electric vehicle batteries/fuel cells will participate later. Many stare themselves blind on the bad efficiency in regulation, and completely forget that what is used, is surplus energy, which, like in the case of wind power, may often come essentially for free. Which doesn’t have to imply bad economy for the producer – when, say 2000 hr/years is enough for making a profit, another 500 hrs “surplus” sold for very little doesn’t cost much operationally – it is good business both for the producer and the regulator.

    And I haven’t even touched upon the impact of smart grids.

    I have great difficulty understanding why anyone can consider home/house/domestic water heating a big problem, as long as most people receive at least 700 kWh/m2 each year. Using bore holes for season storage and heat pumps for retrieval, the only potential problem is that ground water takes the heat away. But then you don’t have to store heat in the hole in the first place, because it regenerates itself. And in my own experience (Oslo region, Norway), I don’t even need a borehole.

  42. To elaborate: The 700 kWh is of course solar irradiation. I’m myself using ca 22 m2 solar collectors, flat plate and vacuum tubes in series, which is both moderate costs (because of the flat plates) and efficient (because of the vacuum tubes). Of course, in the cold season, the collector output is mostly used for input to the heat pump.

  43. I’m shocked by the defeatism and lack of confidence of some Americans.

    “Regardless of whether you Murricans are “good” or not, how exactly would Mr. Tamino actually orchestrate a change this massive without a HUGE reduction in our living standards”

    …Europe averages a similar standard of living at 50% lower per capita CO2. France manages ~70% lower (vive la nucléaire!)

    Replace coal half gas, half renewables/nuclear. Double average fleet economy of cars. If you’d done that by today, US emissions could be ~50% lower than they are.

    But no, some Americans think their country can’t man up and do this. That Europe and Japan are somehow just far more competent. I don’t believe it, but my belief doesn’t matter, it’s Americans who must decide their own destiny.

  44. >US emissions could be ~50% lower than they are.

    And in 10 years, China will capture all of that reduction and then some.
    If you need to cut emissions by 80%, then it can’t be done without China’s 25%

    [Response: There is no excuse for our failure to cut emissions. None. Only selfish, greedy, irresponsible, detestable cowards use China as an excuse.

    It’s also reprehensible hypocrisy to criticize China for what they *might* be doing in 10 years, in order to avoid responsibility for what we *are* doing right now — which is, 3 times higher per capita emissions than China.

    You want China to change its policy? Then goddamit, lead by example.]

    • Moreover, China has in the last half decade or so taken the lead in adopting renewable energy technology, making itself a leading exporter of same, and has considerable money committed to renewables, as well as ambitious targets. (They’ve already been met, and revised upward, at least once.)

      So if you want to speculate about what China ‘might’ do, you’d be quite justified in predicting that they will be a world leader in making money from clean energy–which, as things stand, the US won’t.

  45. Andrew Dodds

    I hate to sound negative.. but..

    Efficiency by itself has a nasty resemblance to pushing down bubbles in wallpaper. For instance..

    – If I buy a more efficient car, I’ll be very tempted to drive more miles.
    – If I have a better insulated house, I’ll be tempted to turn the heating up
    – If my electrical devices have very low standby power, am I going to be bothered with switching them off.
    – And should I avoid all temptation above, I’ll have more spare money. Do I end up buying more ‘stuff’ with the implied emissions? Save the cash in a bank, resulting in more lending and economic activity? Only by taking the cash thus saved and sticking it under the mattress can I ensure that emissions will genuinely be avoided…
    – .. except that by using less fossil fuels I’ve made them slightly cheaper, thus meaning someone else uses them instead.

    • Didactylos

      Few people have any qualms these days about driving as far as they like, when they like, or turning up the heating instead of putting on a sweater, or forgetting their electrical devices even have an off switch at all.

      So, no, I think you don’t have a point.

      Fuel costs are highly artificial, so it’s unlikely you are right about that, either.

      And if you think you have too much money (ha!) you can spend it on green electricity, or invest in renewables. Killing coal doesn’t make capitalism stop overnight. Or at all.

      • Andrew Dodds

        Perhaps in the US people don’t worry about electricity or fuel costs.. they do here (in the UK).

        Besides, I don;t think you are really addressing what I wrote; which is trying to illustrate how efficiency gains tend to be neutered to some degree by second order effects; hence if you rely on efficiency as a major source of emissions reductions you will be disappointed. This does not make it an irrational thing to do for the individual, or a wrong thing to do overall.

  46. On a macro[economic] level, an obvious start is a large carbon tax where the proceeds are used to cut the cost of labour so that full employment is maintained.

    When it costs more to emit carbon we will emit less. Efficiency measures help us ease the pain of reducing our emissions … although I enjoy riding my bike when I can’t afford a taxi.

  47. >criticize China for what they *might* be doing in 10 years

    But they are doing it right now as well. China is right now the leading emitter, at such a high level that global targets 80% cannot be reached unless she cuts by 20%, and everyone else cuts 100%. I read somewhere that the leading countries of Europe and US and Russia and Japan combine to less than half of world emissions. As Chris Colose said, atmospheric physics doesn’t care about geographical boundaries.

    [Response: Reductions in emissions also don’t care about geographical boundaries. Nor does moral responsibility.

    China, the U.S., and India combine to less than half of world emissions. It’s a copout of the first magnitude to blame our lack of action on China.]

  48. Just wanted to point out a few things:
    The “it’s of no use if China and India don’t do it” is an old soundbite by the denial industry. I still remember seeing ads with it in 1997 when Congress was fighting over Kyoto ratification. This was one of the main narratives.

    Considering living standards: America probably has the easiest and cheapest way to save the biggest amount of CO2, just because currently there is so much energy being wasted.

    Just as an example let’s take a look at ACs and heating. No other country in the world cools all their room to 68 degrees F. One might cool to 73 degrees, and turn of the AC when leaving the house (or when opening windows). Adding insulation to the walls and using windows that actually close tightly will help a lot as well, not only with ACs, but with heating as well.
    A modern house can – with a bit of an effort – consume 50kWh/m^2 . If one takes this really seriously a Passivhaus consumes nothing for heating and cooling.

    Another way to save a lot of electricity: Buy a new and modern freezer. They use a fifth of the electricity compared to the national average ten years ago!

    So there really is no drastic reduction in living standards. It just takes a bit awareness and the willingness to take a the most cost efficient steps.