The Weekly Carboholic: China's carbon emissions exceed the U.S.'

Posted on June 18, 2008

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carboholic

It’s official – China has officially overtaken the United States as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2). In 2007, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said that it expected China to exceed the U.S. by the end of the year, but a new Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency study reported by the New York Times says that China’s 2007 CO2 emissions were 14% higher than the U.S.’, and that China’s emissions expanded by 8% from 2006. This is why environmentalist organizations and other parties concerned about global heating around the world are calling on China to be part of whatever follow-on agreement replaces the Kyoto Protocol.

However, that being said, the story also points out that the U.S. per capita emissions are way, way higher than China’s – 19.4 tons vs. 5.1 tons per capita respectively. The NYTimes article says that Russia’s and the EU’s emission per person are 11.8 and 8.6 tons respectively. This tells us two things. First, if China is planning on having a standard of living roughly equal to Europe’s, then China’s emissions are likely going to rise at least another 70% before they start falling as the EU’s emissions are supposed to. That’s huge. Second, it means that Americans are going to have to figure out how to do everything we do today with less than half of the CO2 emissions we currently have, or we’ll have to accept that our economy and culture are going to undergo a massive collapse.

Both are Bad Things™.

(Thanks to S&R’s own Dr. Denny for the link)

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Nuclear advocates (disclosure: I am one) often claim that nuclear power generates no greenhouse gases (GHGs). This is true, but only on a very limited basis – the nuclear reaction that leads to the generation of electricity releases no GHGs. Unfortunately, mining uranium ore, refining it and separating usable U283 from it’s largely useless U235 isotopic cousin, and then reprocessing or storing the waste are all energy-intensive, and so hardly GHG-free. Even so, though, IPS News reported last week that the IEA has called for the construction of 1,400 new nuclear power plants between now and 2050. This would be more than three times as many plants than are operating today and would require massive new uranium mining operations.

According to the article, though, the IEA proposal has been met with downright hostility from some of the environmental community (such as Greenpeace and, as quoted in the article, the German Green Party) for one main reason – 1,400 new reactors would require spent nuclear fuel to be reprocessed into new fuel, and that’s both an environmental nightmare and a potential proliferation problem.

It’s also vital if nuclear power is going to be a bridge technology. The question is whether alternative technologies can be commercialized fast enough to make wide-scale nuclear generation unnecessary. And that’s a question that the utilities, governments, utilities, and citizens will determine over the coming years.

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According to the AFP, the Jason 2 oceanographic satellite will be launched tomorrow from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Jason 2 will orbit with the Jason 1 satellite and track sea level rise along with ocean surface topography. Beyond determining the effects and locations of sea level rise, mapping the surface of the ocean aids in the detection of El Nino/La Nina events, the accurate mapping of oceanic currents, and estimating the future strength of tropical cyclones.

And, for a space geek like me, it’s just plain cool.

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Back in March, the Weekly Carboholic reported on a paper that indicated there had been no observed oceanic heating since 2003, and that the scientists involved with the ARGO system that took the data were at a loss to explain why. One of the possible causes was an undetected systemic bias to the data that was yet to be removed. A new study reported by The Canberra Times points to a new analysis of ocean temperature data since 1961 that discovered just such a bias in the data.

It turns out that the “expendable bathythermograph” devices had manufacturing flaws that led to them systematically mis-measuring the depth to which they’d plunged as they were taking temperature measurements. The researchers were able to correct or minimize the bias in literally millions of temperature measurements since 1961. The corrected data has revealed that the oceanic temperature and sea level rise climate models have been underestimating oceanic heating and that actual measured heating and thermal expansion has been underestimated by over 50%.

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Scientists have begun to suspect that radical changes in climate have been at least partly responsible for most of the mass extinctions throughout the history of the Earth. Whether triggered by cometary or asteroidal impact, the eruption of massive volcanoes, or wild shifts in the sun’s output and the Earth’s Milankovich cycles, the end result has been a radically altered climate that the majority of species alive at the time cannot adapt to. But for the first time a scientist has suggested that changes in sea level is the driving factor, not the climate change.

According to an AFP article in the Independent Online (IOL), geologist and sole study author Shanan Peters of the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered that the last five mass extinctions all correlated with massive changes in sea level, including the suspected impact that corresponds to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Peters appears to suggest that it’s the flooding or exposure of new land due to sea level changes that cause mass extinctions.

While it’s true that the flooding caused by rising sea levels would flood entire regions and likely drive local species to extinction, it’s fair to ask whether the correlation between that extinction means that it’s the sea level rise itself that is ultimately the causative event. For example, when tectonic forces lifted the Isthmus of Panama out of the ocean, it cut the Atlantic off from the Pacific and totally reshuffled oceanic currents around the globe – should we blame the currents for causing extinctions, or the rise of the Isthmus of Panama? If the dinosaurs were wiped out by a comet, the impact itself probably didn’t kill most of them, the resulting (likely) centuries-long cold snap is what did the killing, but does that mean we blame the radically colder climate for the extinction, or do we blame the comet or asteroid that likely caused the cold in the first place?

In my opinion, it’s fair to say that there was correlation between changes in sea level and mass extinctions, if Summers did actually find such a correlation. But given how the ocean is more reactive to the environment around it (atmospheric temperature, tidal effects, solar heating, etc.) than causative, I believe that it’s far more likely that the changes in climate and geology that drove sea level changes are the actual causative agents in those mass extinctions.

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