There was a report about how the rate of CO2 emissions was increasing about 4.0% per year from 1960-1979, decreased to 1.3% per year from the 1980’s to 1999, and in this decade (since 2000) has increased again to 4.0% per year. This is obviously alarming because it shows that we are not any making progress at all in reducing CO2 emissions: things are getting worse not better. Also, last year was the first year that China has equaled or replaced the US as the nation with the highest CO2 emissions (it’s close enough to be difficult to tell if it is equal to or greater than). Don’t fret though, on a per capita basis, we’re still winning the CO2 emission game by a long shot because we have less than a quarter as many people as China.
I thought it was also interesting that today in the NYT there’s a Freakonomics blog post about “Financial literacy” where you can take a brief quiz and it talks about how a scary number of Americans get many of these questions wrong. For example Question #1 is:
1. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2 percent per year. After 5 years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow?
a. More than $102
b. Exactly $102
c. Less than $102
d. Do not know
I think these two tidbits on “rates of change” make an interesting juxtaposition. Maybe the CO2 rising doesn’t seem as alarming as it should because everything else in our lives is increasing. Population, the economy, traffic, computer speed… We’re used to things increasing. And this kind of acceleration is usually considered a good thing. There’s even an urban myth that compounding interest was hailed by Einstein as humanity’s greatest invention (this appear to be a made up quote). With this perspective, maybe its not so bad that CO2 goes up 4% a year, basically increasing with compounding interest like a savings account?
Yikes is all I can say. And I can’t say it sincerely enough, I think I’d have to scream it to feel like I’m doing justice to the sentiment. Elemental cycles are not mutual funds. We started at 280 ppm in the 1800’s (ppm=parts per million) and we’re up to 384 this year. Most think there’s no way we can get our emissions under control before we hit 500, and we’re beating the worse case scenarios already to surpass that (see above). We’re talking about more than doubling the CO2 in the atmosphere. Elements aren’t money. They have mass, I hate to say it, but they’re real. Money used to be backed by a real gold standard, but that was done away with – there isn’t enough gold out there anymore. The giant pool of money is (usually) increasing. That’s easy, its just digits on a bunch of hard drives somewhere. Money doesn’t follow conservation of mass (which is a discussion point in and of itself). The greenhouse gas and climate change problem is almost entirely caused by taking oil or coal buried deep in the ground and burning it and putting that carbon in the air. Not only do we have to stop putting the carbon it up there, we will likely have to figure out ways to pull some out of the atmosphere as well, “sequestering it” as it is known.
As you’ve likely heard, last week Al Gore laid out an ambitious plan to have US electricity production become carbon free by 2018. It’s very ambitious considering how broad the changes will have to be throughout our society. But, it is humbling to realize this is the kind of action that we need to actually solve the climate change problem. It seems our society has a choice: Do we decide it’s too hard and pick a lesser path, or do we say that’s what we have to do and figure out how to get it done.
I particularly like that Gore is trumpeting this policy approach that we’ve talked about before:
[Gore] said the single most important policy change would be placing a carbon tax on burning oil and coal, with an accompanying reduction in payroll taxes.
cross post: elemental cycles