China’s industrialized economy is transforming itself from one heavily reliant on coal and steel production to a greener one that uses less energy. But as studies trickle in painting a picture of what that means for the climate, there is a lot of uncertainty about when China’s carbon dioxide emissions will reach their peak.
A team of London scientists thinks it may have an answer: China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluter, will use less and less energy over the next decade, leading to a peak in the country’s emissions sometime between now and 2025.
Air pollution in Chinese cities such as Linfen has spurred the government to reduce its reliance on coal.
But in a twist, the same researchers say there’s a chance that China’s emissions may have peaked already because of a significant drop in coal consumption last year. If so, the country may have met its target to max out its carbon emissions nearly 15 years sooner than it expected, according to a study published this week in the journal Climate Policy.
Study lead author Fergus Green, a climate policy consultant at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said China’s decline in coal consumption in 2015 was so significant that the related decline in carbon dioxide emissions from coal outweighed the growth in carbon emissions from oil and gas use, which continued to grow last year.
“We expect the broad structural forces that have caused this turnaround — both those affecting energy demand and those affecting energy supply — to continue to a greater or lesser degree over the coming decade, with the result that, if emissions do grow, that growth is likely to be slow,” Green said. “Our paper argues that peaking between now and 2025 is likely, though it is possible that 2014 was the peak.”
For 2014 not to have been the peak, emissions would need to grow over the next decade by more than they fell in 2015, he said.
Chinese officials, however, are standing by their country’s intitial projections. They said this week that the country’s carbon dioxide emissions are still increasing because it is still industrializing, and they expect emissions there to hit their apogee sometime around 2030.
The years between 2000 and 2013 were boom times for China, with high levels of energy-intensive industrial growth leading to a spike in its coal consumption and steel production, and rising greenhouse gas emissions along with them.
During that time, the country’s energy consumption grew 8 percent annually. But as its economic growth has slowed since 2013, its energy consumption has fallen to a growth rate of less than 2 percent each year, reducing the need to burn as much coal.
At the same time, China has been investing heavily in low-carbon renewable electricity and has seen its highly-polluting steel and cement industries tumble. The country has also begun aiming to curb its carbon emissions to clear the air in its notoriously polluted cities.
All those factors led to a 5 percent drop in coal consumption and a 35 percent fall in coal imports in 2015.
Emissions sources in Chongqing, China.
Credit: Leo Fung/flickr
Glen Peters, a global carbon cycle researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway, said he agrees that China’s emissions have yet to peak, but China’s complex economy is unpredictable enough that it’s hard to forecast when its carbon emissions will reach their apex.
“I am not sure anyone predicted the rapid rise of China from 2001,” Peters said. “In 2010, I don’t think anyone would have predicted Chinese coal consumption may peak in 2014. China is complex.”
Other scientists say the research by Green’s team shows that China is pushing ahead with its commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to benefit the climate.
Ranping Song, of the World Resources Institute’s Climate Action Program, said there are a lot of uncertainties about the future of China’s economy, and it’s too early to say if China will meet its 2030 emissions pledge as part of the Paris climate agreement.
“To me, the focus should not be on when China would be peaking (its emissions) but if China is actually laying the foundation to reduce emissions over the long term,” by developing renewables and reducing the carbon intensity of its economy, Song said.
Rob Jackson, a Stanford University earth systems science professor, said the new study shows that China’s carbon-intensive boom days are over. Jackson published research last year showing China’s emissions growth rate is declining even as its economy grows.
“We’ll probably see modest (emissions) growth of 1 to 2 percent in some years over the next decade, but I expect Chinese emissions to peak well before the government deadline of 2030,” Jackson said.
“China’s under tremendous internal pressure to slash coal use,” he said. “People are dying from air pollution.”
The annual growth rate of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose more in 2015 than scientists have ever seen in a single year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Thursday.
It was the fourth year in a row that carbon dioxide concentrations grew by more than 2 parts per million, with an annual growth rate of 3.05 parts per million in 2015. The spike comes in the same year that Earth reached an ominous global warming milestone — scientists last year measured the highest atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide ever recorded.
Recent Monthly Average Mauna Loa CO2 reading.
Carbon dioxide emissions from people burning fossil fuels are the driving force behind climate change and have risen to greater than 400 ppm — more than 120 ppm above pre-industrial levels. Earth has warmed more than 1.6°F over that period.
As of February, the average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration in the earth’s atmosphere was about 402.6 ppm, according to NOAA data. The findings are based on measurements made at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.
“Carbon dioxide levels are increasing faster than they have in hundreds of thousands of years,” Pieter Tans, lead scientist of NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network, said in a statement.
The rate of increase in carbon dioxide concentrations is 200 times faster than the previous extreme jump between 11,000 and 17,000 years ago, when levels rose 80 ppm over about 6,000 years.
NOAA scientists are blaming last year’s spike in carbon dioxide concentrations on what will likely be the most extreme El Niño ever recorded, as ecosystems respond to the changes in temperature and precipitation it has caused.
Michael Mann, an atmospheric science professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, who is unaffiliated with NOAA, said the carbon dioxide milestone shouldn’t be over-interpreted.
“This spike is almost certainly due in substantial part to the ongoing El Niño event, which is a fleeting effect that increases carbon dioxide concentrations temporarily,” Mann said. “Carbon dioxide concentrations are a lagging indicator, and they don’t accurately reflect recent trends in the more important variable — our actual carbon emissions.”
Emissions, he said, have stabilized somewhat in recent years and dropped slightly in 2015, reflecting human progress in transitioning away from a fossil fuel economy, he said.
“Those are the numbers to keep a close eye on,” he said. “If they continue to decline, we will see carbon dioxide concentrations beginning to stabilize.
Humans are releasing planet-warming carbon dioxide at about 10 times faster than the most rapid event of anytime in at least the past 66 million years. This leaves us without a historical analogue to guide predictions for how climate change will affect the world in coming years, a new study has found.
The study, published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience, comes about a week after news broke that the level of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere spiked by the largest amount on record in 2015, and on the heels of the hottest year and mildest first two months of 2016 on record.
To reach their conclusions, the researchers examined ancient sediments off the coast of Millville, New Jersey, looking at the chemical composition of sediment layers that were laid down millions of years ago, containing clues about the planet’s climate history. Specifically, they researched trends in carbon and oxygen isotopes.
The carbon isotopes represent new carbon coming into the climate system, and the oxygen isotopes represent the climate’s response to this pulse of excess carbon.
The study focuses on what the isotope ratios reveal about what occurred during a time period in Earth’s geological history known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Boundary, or PETM. The PETM took place about 56 million years ago.
The isotopes changed in virtual lockstep with each other, indicating that the carbon release during the PETM was more likely to have taken place over a long period of time, due to what is known about the lag effects in the climate system and how the climate responds to sudden, massive injections of carbon dioxide.
There has been a long-running debate in the scientific community about just what caused the massive climate change and sizable species extinctions at the PETM boundary, and how quickly carbon was released into the atmosphere, thereby warming the air and seas while also acidifying the oceans.
While mass extinctions of marine creatures occurred during the PETM, there was not widespread species loss on land, according to study co-author Richard Zeebe of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
During the PETM, the total amount of carbon released was about equal to all the fossil fuels thought to be currently left on Earth. This period likely saw the largest carbon release in at least the past 66 million years, according to the study.
“I think to me it’s completely clear we have entered a completely new era in terms of what humans can do on this planet”
The study also used computer model simulations of Earth’s climate and carbon cycle in order to estimate rates of change from the record without needing precise knowledge of the precise ages of each sediment layer in the record.
The global temperature increase during the PETM is thought to be between 4 and 8 degrees Celsius, or 7.2 to 14.4 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Scott Wing, a paleobiologist and curator at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, who did not contribute to the new study.
“As far as we know the PETM, the Paleocene-Eocene boundary is the event in the last 66 million years with the largest carbon release and most likely also the fastest, and that’s why we have studied this event,” Zeebe told Mashable.
Zeebe and his colleagues found that the maximum emissions rate during the beginning of the PETM was likely on the order of about 1.1 billion tons per year. Overall, the PETM onset is thought to have lasted more than 4,000 years.
This compares to today’s emissions rates of closer to 10 billion tons per year during a period of just a few centuries.
In other words, the study concludes that the current global emissions rate is about 10 times as fast as what occurred during the PETM.
Specifically, the study shows that the temperature increase associated with the first jump in carbon emissions when the PETM began was synchronous rather than instantaneous. This means they evolved together during the course of several thousand years, which suggests a relatively slow rate of carbon emissions spread out across a long period of time.
A more rapid increase in emissions would have produced more of a lag between the carbon release and temperature increase, since the climate system does not respond instantaneously to a sharp rise in greenhouse gases, given that it takes time to cycle carbon through the planet’s oceans and land-based carbon sinks, like forests.
We are now operating with no analogue
One of the biggest implications of the study’s findings is that the impacts of modern-day climate change on the seas and land will be more severe than what was seen during the PETM.
The impacts of modern-day climate change on the seas and land will be more severe.
This is especially the case in the oceans, where carbon is being absorbed at rapid rates, making the waters more acidic and interfering with the ability of species that rely on calcium carbonate to make their shells, such as scallops and oysters, to function normally.
Zeebe said the ocean acidification lessons of the study are particularly significant.
“… Unfortunately because we’re doing it so fast, our conclusion is that the rate of acidification will be much more severe in the future, and also that the effects on the calcifiers are likely to be more severe than what we see during the PETM,” he told Mashable.
A high rate of warming can overwhelm the ability of many marine and land species to adapt to climate change.
Zeebe said ecosystems on land will also see larger changes than what occurred during the PETM because the pace of climate change is now more rapid than it has been even during that time.
Wing said the study is important for providing new insight into an important question: “We want to know how fast the PETM happened because the rate of carbon addition is critical to determining its effects on everything.”
“If the rate of PETM addition was 10 billion tons per year, then it is very much like current human addition, and we might expect the future to look like the PETM in many ways,” he said.
“If the rate of PETM carbon addition was a tenth of our rate, then the future will likely be much more extreme than the PETM in many ways,” Wing said.
More evidence of the ‘anthropocene’
Zeebe has conducted numerous studies on the planet’s climate history using chemical signatures contained in various marine organisms, known as foraminifera.
This has given him a unique perspective on the Earth’s geological history, and how to place modern-day climate change within a long-term perspective.
Zeebe is one of many researchers who favor naming the period starting with the industrial revolution as a new geological epoch, known as the Anthropocene.
“I think to me it’s completely clear we have entered a completely new era in terms of what humans can do on this planet,” he said.
“… If you look at the past and if you study the geologic record, every time when there was massive carbon release there were major changes on the planet and there were significant, large changes in climate.”
Experts who did not participate in the new study said it helps to shed insight on a critical question concerning the PETM and modern climate change, although there are some questions about how the study’s authors arrived at their conclusions.
Paul Pearson, a researcher at Cardiff University in Wales, who was not involved in this research, said the study shows that the carbon input into the Earth’s atmosphere during the PETM, as well as the climate’s response to those emissions, were likely gradual over thousands of years.
“This means that the rate of carbon input was probably much lower than the modern anthropogenic [man-made] rate,” he told Mashable. “This makes anthropogenic change a ‘no-analogue state’ in their jargon – in other words we are now changing the Earth much faster than ever before.”
Peter Stassen, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Leuven in Belgium who wasn’t involved with the new research, said the study does imply that we’re entering a time period for which we have no historical guide.
“We are probably entering a new era of climate alteration (Anthropocene) that is unknown from the deep-time geological history in respect to the rate of variations in atmospheric CO2 levels,” he wrote in an email.
“We’re still underestimating the long-term consequences of our fossil fuel burning”
The study does come with important caveats.
For example, precisely dating the age of sediment during the PETM is difficult, although Zeebe and his colleagues tried to get around this by using statistical approaches to estimate the emissions rate rather than pinpointing the exact years at which emissions and climate responses occurred.
Pearson, of Cardiff University, said the study adds valuable insight to climate science.
“I think the conclusion is valid, although I am concerned about one aspect: whether the isotope shifts, especially oxygen, are a primary record of environmental change or if there could be some other explanation,” he said.
“Other cores in the New Jersey area show quite [a] different magnitude of shift… which is currently difficult to understand.”
Wing said the study is important in that it addresses a nagging question about the PETM, but he is not yet sure that it’s methods and conclusions are completely robust.
“What I have to figure out is how sensitive Zeebe’s analysis is to the assumptions that they have to make about rate of ocean warming, and how good the data are, since the dissolution of carbonate is a problem in most marine records,” he told Mashable. “It will take some time to evaluate these factors.”
According to Zeebe, it would be an error to assume that we currently know by how much the world will warm during the next few centuries based on emissions rates and historical climate records.
If anything, he says, past climate data, such as that revealed in the new study, shows that warming may be on the upper end of projections.
“We should be careful, in terms of the long-term consequences of our fossil fuel burning,” Zeebe warns, “because it is possible, and this is what these records tell us, that we’re still underestimating the long-term consequences of our fossil fuel burning.”
As the Starbucks empire makes humble plans to open its first shop in Italy, the city it’s moving to — Milan — plans to give a different sort of bucks away.
To combat air pollution, Milan officials hope to pay commuters to bike instead of drive to work. The Guardianreports that the system will be based loosely on the French program tested in 2014, which paid employees 25 Euro cents for each kilometer* they biked to work.
Milan’s air needs all the help it can get. Named the “pollution capital of Europe” in 2008, the city continues to struggle with dirty air. In December, Milan instituted a three-day ban on private cars due to heavy smog.
Which raises another point: Who wants to cycle to work on streets clogged with toxic emissions, anyway? Critics of the proposed program point out that a host of factors affect a person’s decision to bicycle to work, like the availability of bike paths, places to park your bike, and showers.
In the French pilot program, 5 percent of 10,000 total commuters ended up switching from driving to biking. This success encouraged copycat initiatives, including one that launched last year in a smaller Italian town, Massarosa. Programs like these are a sign that clean, personal transportation is becoming fashionable. After all, we’re talking about Milan — the world’s renowned arbiter of all things vogue.
Here’s to hoping this program will prompt the penny pinchers among Milan’s 1.25 million residents to step off the gas pedal and onto bike pedals instead.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article used miles instead of kilometers. Grist regrets the error and has sentenced the author to a four hour training session on the metric system.
About 5.5 million people around the world die prematurely every year from breathing polluted air, and the majority of those deaths are occurring in China and India, where factories and coal-fired power plants are fueling economic growth, according to a report released Friday.
The authors said the findings show that disease from air and household pollution ranks as the number two cause of death worldwide. It comes in right behind smoking, which the World Health Organization says kills 6 million people annually. The research, part of an initiative to monitor the global burden of disease, is being presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.
Air pollution is made up of fine particulate matter from power generation, transportation and open burning. Household pollution is created by stoves that burn coal, wood and animal dung for cooking and heat, primarily in India and Africa. Both can lead to heart attacks and strokes, and the researchers found that nearly 1 million people die annually from these causes in China, more than a half-million die in India, and nearly 300,000 die in the United States and European Union countries.
Although the report used 2013 data, co-author Dan Greenbaum, president of the nonprofit Health Effects Institute in Boston, noted that “these things don’t change overnight.” Last year’s death toll likely was similar, he said.
The Chinese government is moving aggressively to improve air quality by forcing automobiles there to be equipped with cleaner technology, and power plants to lower the amount of particulates they spew. But gains are offset by the country’s drive to become a world economic power — through the very industries it seeks to better regulate.
The United States, where yearly deaths from air pollution fell from 119,000 to 79,000 between 1990 and 2013, and the European Union, where they fell from 350,000 to 218,000 over the same period, stand as models for China, Greenbaum said. The United States continues to push for lower emissions from automobile traffic and has imposed stronger rules on industry, such as cement plants and those that generate electricity from coal.
China’s worsening air pollution is a problem far beyond its borders, with previous studies showing that it marginally increases air pollution on the U.S. West Coast. At the AAAS meeting, Greenbaum said, a Chinese scientist is set to present an analysis showing that “coal is by far the largest health burden, about 50 percent of the problem.”
Report co-author Qiao Ma, a doctoral student at the School of Environment at Tsinghua University in Beijing, found that outdoor air pollution from coal contributed to about 366,000 Chinese deaths in 2013. According to her projection, between 990,000 and 1.3 million people there will lose their lives prematurely by 2030 unless ambitious pollution-reduction targets are introduced.
“Our study highlights the urgent need for even more aggressive strategies to reduce emissions from coal and from other sectors,” Ma said in a statement.
Air pollution is “by far the leading environmental risk factor for disease,” Michael Brauer, another co-author and professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health in Vancouver, said in the statement. “Reducing air pollution is an incredibly efficient way to improve the health of a population.”
Smog obscures the banks of the Songhua River in Jilin, China. (ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images) India has moved to reduce household pollution, but not with the same urgency as China. “It’s harder to solve the household problems because these are poor families that can’t convert to electric stoves,” Greenbaum said. “People who are in the kitchen, women primarily, are exposed to extremely high levels of pollution.”
But Indian officials are intent on regulating what they can, said Chandra Venkataraman, a professor of chemical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, who analyzed pollution there as part of the report. Emission standards legislation has been introduced in the wake of the international climate agreement reached last December in Paris. And policies are in place to move the country from coal-burning heavy industry. Venkataraman said officials also want to end a standard Indian practice of widespread burning to clear agricultural fields.
As part of a national cook-stove initiative, about 110 million households now have stoves that burn bio-matter, she said in a telephone interview. “But it’s not a centralized problem, it’s all over the country. And it’s not just a technological problem, it’s an issue of awareness.”
Every year, plants inhale and exhale carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It’s a natural seasonal cycle that has played out over millennia.
But as humans emit more carbon dioxide (CO2) by burning fossil fuels, the steady rhythm is being replaced by a more erratic cycle as plants race to keep pace with all the new CO2 in the atmosphere. New research shows just how much that extra CO2 is changing our planet’s natural cycles.
Since the Industrial Revolution, humans activities have driven up CO2 in the atmosphere from 280 parts per million (ppm) to over 400 ppm for the first time in at least 400,000 years. The rise has been accurately measured, day-by-day and season-by-season since the late 1950s. Scientists have tracked a seasonal cycle where plants suck up CO2 over late spring and summer before releasing it back into the atmosphere when they die off in the fall.
There’s been a curious shift over that time. While CO2 has risen steadily — as illustrated by the iconic Keeling Curve — the difference between the seasonal high measurements taken in the spring and the seasonal low measurements taken in the fall has been getting wider with each passing year. Instead of rising at the same rate, the seasonal high has been rising faster than the seasonal low.
The trend has been most extreme in the high northern latitudes, where the gap between the seasonal high and the seasonal low in a given year is now up to 25 percent greater than it was since recordkeeping began.
“Atmospheric CO2 measurements show how the patient ‘Earth’ is doing,” Matthias Forkel, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, said.
Borrowing a phrase from a 2013 article, he said, “the ‘biosphere is hyperventilating.’”
The new research ties the difference to plants colonizing new habitat such as formerly barren tundra. Other plants such as trees in boreal forests could also be growing faster. That’s allowing them to take up more CO2 for now, but it also comes with a cascade of changes that are reshaping the face of region.
As more plants colonize the tundra, they could eventually cause the world to warm even more rapidly. Their dark surfaces absorb more sunlight than reflective snow. They’re also changing habitat that animals and certain plants have relied on for centuries, putting their survival in jeopardy unless they adapt to new conditions.
Boreal forest in Denali National Park.
Credit: Library of Congress
Forkel warned that it’s also possible the trend could stop and even reverse as the world continues to warm. There are already signs that trees on the southern fringe of the boreal forest — the most important part of the northern hemisphere ecosystem when it comes to inhaling CO2 — are struggling to cope with rising temperatures. As they die off or burn up, they could release massive stores of CO2.
Vivek Arora, a climate scientist at Environment Canada, said without the boreal forests and other ecosystems on land as well as biological and physical processes in the ocean taking up CO2, there would be 25 percent more CO2 in the atmosphere than there is now.
He also said that the new findings added to the understanding of what’s behind the increasing seasonal swings in CO2 and that they could help climate models more accurately show what future human CO2 emissions could mean for the planet.
The research reveals what environmental sociologist Dr. Mary Collins calls “a double disproportionality.” The findings show not only that a few polluters are much dirtier than others, but also that racial and socioeconomic inequalities can determine where these “toxic outliers” set up shop.
“The study is linking privilege on the emission side — the super polluter class — to inequality on the problem side,” Collins, a co-author of the study and assistant professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, told The Huffington Post.
It’s no secret that poor and minority communities shoulder a disproportionate burden of environmental harm.
And now, the new super-polluter study confirms that a link between a neighborhood’s demographics and pollution still exists, according to Dr. Sacoby Wilson, assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study.
The new research “follows a line of studies that have been done over the last 30 years showing the differential burden of hazards in areas that have a higher proportion of people of color and low-income groups,” Wilson told HuffPost.
For the study, which was funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, researchers looked at one billion toxic releases from 16,000 industrial facilities in the U.S. and used the data to identify the locations of super polluters. They then looked at the racial and socioeconomic makeup of those locations to see whether or not certain groups were disproportionately affected by toxic emissions.
We have to change the system.Dr. Sacoby Wilson, University of Maryland School of Public Health
The researchers discovered that the distribution of super polluters is more uneven than previously believed.
“It’s pretty well-established that some societies are worse to the environment than others,” Collins said. “But these highly skewed patterns of pollution seem more extreme than we would have expected.”
Dr. Paul Mohai, a professor at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor who was not involved in the study, said that the new research reveals how disparities in environmental risk affect many communities outside of the national spotlight.
“What we have seen in Flint may be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to environmental contamination in low-income and people of color of communities,” Mohai wrote in an email to HuffPost.
What explains the fact that the worst polluters tend to plant themselves in low-income and minority communities? According to Wilson, these communities often lack the economic and political power needed to block dirty factories from locating in their neighborhoods or to enforce existing environmental regulations.
“These communities become dumping grounds because they’re the avenues of least resistance,” he said. “I call it contamination without representation.”
The study’s authors, however, insist that there may be a solution. If it’s true that just a handful of polluters are responsible for most of the country’s toxic emissions, cracking down on a few facilities could go a long way in reducing harmful air pollution, according to Collins.
Environmental problems often seem huge and intractable, Collins said, “but this could be a way to take big problems, separate them into their parts and target the worst of the worst.”
According to Wilson, correcting the uneven distribution of pollution in the U.S. will require targeting the roots of the environmental injustice: institutionalized racism, economic inequality and political disenfranchisement.