14 July 2009

Monbiot Discovers Math, Puts it to Good Use

George Monbiot has discovered something important. The simple math of proposed emissions reductions policies does not work. He writes in the Guardian on Tuesday:

Last week the G8 summit adopted the UK's two key targets : it proposed that developed countries should reduce their greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050 to prevent more than two degrees of global warming. This meant that it also adopted the UK's key contradiction, as there is no connection between these two aims. An 80% cut is very unlikely to prevent two degrees of warming; in fact it's not even the right measure, as I'll explain later on. But let's work out what happens if the other rich nations adopt both the UK's targets and its draft approach to carbon offsets.

Please bear with me on this: the point is an important one. There are some figures involved, but I'll use only the most basic arithmetic, which anyone with a calculator can reproduce.

The G8 didn't explain what it meant by "developed countries", but I'll assume it was referring to the nations listed in Annex 1 of the Kyoto protocol: those that have promised to limit their greenhouse gases by 2012. (If it meant the OECD nations, the results are very similar.) To keep this simple and consistent, I'll consider just the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels, as listed by US Energy Information Administration. It doesn't publish figures for Monaco and Lichtenstein, but we can forgive that. The 38 remaining Annex 1 countries produce 15bn tonnes of CO2, or 51% of global emissions. Were they to do as the UK proposes, cutting this total by 80% and offsetting half of it, they would have to buy reductions equal to 20% of the world's total carbon production. This means that other countries would need to cut 42% of their emissions just to absorb our carbon offsets.

But the G8 has also adopted another of the UK's targets: a global cut of 50% by 2050. Fifty per cent of world production is 14.6bn tonnes. If the Annex 1 countries reduce their emissions by 80% (including offsets), they will trim global output by 12bn tonnes. The other countries must therefore find further cuts of 2.6bn tonnes. Added to the offsets they've sold, this means that their total obligation is 8.6bn tonnes, or 60% of their current emissions.

So here's the outcome. The rich nations, if they follow the UK's presumed lead, will cut their carbon pollution by 40%. The poorer nations will cut their carbon pollution by 60%.

Are poor countries actually going to cut their emissions? No. You can do the math from there.


  1. "Are poor countries actually going to cut their emissions? No."

    I agree that's true for the next few decades. I think in 2030-2050, China and India could be removing coal-fired power plants from service at a rate that would result in their emissions declining from their peak emissions. But I agree that they're unlikely to even get down to 2009 emissions by 2050, let alone a 40% or 60% reduction from 2009 emissions.

  2. The G8 language is very loose when it comes to defining the emissions goals. It seems, to me at least, that they are using 1990 levels as a baseline against which to measure the cuts. But I am not sure of this. Monbiot obviously thinks differently. Anyone have a clearer read on this?

    It makes a big difference in terms of the total emissions reductions (and in trying to keep the temperature rise less that 2C).



  3. The G8 declaration doesn't mention offsets, so it's not clear that Monbiot's math is relevant. A 6 gigaton/yr offset market seems a bit delusional. But if you don't count offsets toward targets, the numbers might add up, and developing countries could be happy to meet their 8.6 Gt target, since they'd only have to pay for 30% of it.

    In any case, if you think poor countries aren't going to cut at all, you hardly need to do the math - you're probably looking at a 700ppm+ future.

    The G8 declaration explicitly references 1990 for the 80% developed cut, but the 50% global baseline is ambiguous.

  4. Knappenberger,

    Don't have a ref, but the parties agreed to leave that unspecified (probably at the behest of Canada, among others).

  5. Here is an interesting article on Chinese GHG emissions here: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/bizchina/2009-07/06/content_8380655.htm

    They expect their emissions to peak about 2035 at 8.8 billion tons of CO2, but not to decline much from that by 2050. They actually expect to greatly decrease the amount of CO2 produced unit of GDP, but they expect their GDP to be much larger.

    I'm hoping that their nuclear power program comes along fast enough that they can stop building coal plants earlier than their current plan and convert existing coal plants to nuclear power.

  6. FWIW, here is my take of who has to do what to make the G8 plan successful:

    The G-8 Countries Climate Agreement: A Lot for A Little.

    My numbers are a bit different than Monbiot's because my assumptions are a bit different than his.