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Not surprisingly, many of the early predictions from the climate change folks have been inaccurate.  Of course, they get the big subject right—the global atmosphere has trapped more energy and usually more energy leads to more heat.  Much error is just an occupational hazard of trend projections.  It is tempting to take a data curve and stick something on the end.  When this practice fails—and it does quite often—it is usually because the model has left out some important complicating factor.

Which is why the following story is so interesting.  Huge icebergs are breaking loose from Antarctica—global warming, check.  But because they are so large, they sort of tow around their own weather systems and their meltwater supports a carbon absorbing phytoplankton.  Even better, it seems, these island-sized ice cubes cool some significant areas.  Well, duh!  It takes a LOT of energy to melt ice—says the man writing on a night headed for -10°F (-23°C).

Unfortunately, whatever benefit is to be gained from melting the Antarctic ice sheets, it is a one-time deal.  If these little iceberg micro-climates gain the planet a few years, we would be very wise to spend that time building the necessary zero-carbon-emission green society.

Researchers have found that the plume of cold water released from massive icebergs increases carbon storage in the seas - far more than previously thought. This negative feedback loop significantly slows climate change.

It seems a paradox: giant icebergs, a symbol of climate change, can actually slow down warming of the Earth.

This is possible because the cold, mineral-rich water melting icebergs leave in their wakes nourishes phytoplankton. These tiny marine organisms take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and when they die, sink to the ocean floor to create a literal carbon bank.

"When phytoplankton grow, they give off fecal matter and die, and some of that material sinks deep in the ocean, where it stays for centuries or millennia," explained study author Grant Bigg, an Earth systems professor at the University of Sheffield in England.

Particularly giant icebergs - that is, those at least 18 kilometers long - have this effect, due to the area covered.

Research for the paper, published in "Nature Geoscience," analyzed satellite images of giant icebergs in the Southern Ocean around the Antarctic, measuring the intensity of the color of chlorophyll produced by phytoplankton.

This "plume of productivity extends five to 10 times from the iceberg," Bigg said - meaning "the net carbon storage is much larger than suspected."

"It's essentially slowing the rate at which carbon dioxide is remaining in the atmosphere," Bigg told DW.

Rising global temperatures are causing more icebergs to calve from ice sheets and ice fields

The concentration of atmospheric carbon is currently around 400 parts per million, and is increasing by roughly 2 ppm each year. "Giant icebergs have slowed that increase by 5 to 10 percent," Bigg said.

Antarctica is warming faster than other world regions, which is causing the ice sheet to melt and contributing to sea level rise. Warming there is often understood in terms of a positive feedback loop, where warming causes more ice to melt, thus accelerating further warming.

Some research indicates that warming in Antarctica has already reached a tipping point for melting,from which there would be no return.

The finding that melting icebergs can slow global warming was a surprise, as the scale of the phenomenon hadn't before been known.

"We still don't fully understand the climate system - I wouldn't be surprised if there were further both negative and positive feedback that could possibly accelerate or slow down global warming," Bigg concluded.

The New York Times published a report on the effects that clouds exert on long-term average warming of the globe.  Most climate scientists agree that clouds will have a neutral or a positive effect, i.e., one that acts to amplify the warming effect of the greenhouse effect and make it stronger.  The report identifies the work of Dr. Richard Lindzen as expressing the opposite view that cirrus clouds will act to reduce the effect of warming as the temperature rises.  This hypothesis is considered discredited among climate scientists.  To help understand this issue, this post provides background on the processes involving clouds and water vapor in the overall energy balance of the globe.

Introduction.  The role of water vapor and cloud cover in assessing the long-term warming of the earth  is complex, both with respect to observation (data gathering) and modeling.  A  schematic identifying the processes by which water vapor and clouds can affect the energy balance at the earth’s surface is shown below.

Processes involved in the global rate of absorbing or radiating energy due to clouds and water vapor.  Units are given in watts per square meter (W m-2), where 1 watt is a unit of power, i.e. a unit describing the rate of energy gain or loss per second.  The numbers given in the graphic represent the result of measurements and modeled calculation by the authors for March 2000 to May 2004. 
Darker yellow downward arrows, left, show incoming power per meter squared for visible solar light.  Paler yellow arrows, right, show outgoing power per meter squared due to heat (infrared) radiation, as well as heat radiation from the atmosphere back to the earth’s surface due to the greenhouse effect from CO2, water vapor and clouds.  Evapotranspiration (center) combines bulk evaporation and transport of water from the ground to the air by the transpiration of green plants.  Latent heat (cloud in center) is explained in this post http://warmgloblog.blogspot.com/2011/03/ice-water-and-water-vapor.html.
Source: Trenberth and coworkers, BAMS March 2009, pp. 311-323; http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/cas/Trenberth/trenberth.papers/TFK_bams09.pdf
For sunlight reaching the earth, the sun's energy (visible light) is re-emitted as heat (infrared) energy. Water vapor is transparent to visible sunlight (just as is CO2), but water vapor and clouds act as greenhouse elements with respect to heat energy (also just as does CO2). As shown in the diagram, a) clouds directly reflect a portion of the visible light from the sun back into space, and b) clouds as well as atmospheric water vapor exert a greenhouse effect on heat (infrared) radiation originating at the earth’s surface.  This greenhouse effect absorbs a large portion of the heat and re-emits it in all directions, shown in the diagram as continuing on out into space and returning to the earth’s surface as heat. 

At the very bottom of the diagram, the net total result of the all the positive and negative contributions to the energy balance is shown as 0.9 W m-2, a small net warming effect.  It is important to see from this diagram that since this final result is a very small number arrived at by adding and subtracting very large numbers, any small error in the inputs will have a disproportionately large effect on the final result, and could easily turn a positive energy balance into a negative balance.  For example, even the reported outcome for the global average is the result of a cooling of 15.6 W m-2 for land (about 30% of the earth's surface) and a warming of 6.9 W m-2 for the oceans (about 70% of the surface).

The New York Times recently published a report discussing scientists’ current understanding of the role of clouds in the long-term increase in the global average temperature.  This involves new enhanced measurement methods as well as refined inputs into global climate models (GCMs; also general circulation models).  As noted above, clouds can contribute both to more cooling (reflection of incoming sunlight), and to warming (because clouds and water vapor contribute a greenhouse effect based on the heat (infrared) radiation leaving the earth’s surface).  According to the report, the broad conclusion of the great majority of scientists is that, in balance, a neutral or positive contribution to the overall global temperature dominates.  (Clouds are only one of many factors accounted for in GCMs.)
Background.  Climate scientists have reached a broad consensus that our planet is warming. By measuring the long-term average temperature at stations all around the globe, as well as by satellite in recent decades, they find that the global temperature is increasing, starting with the industrial revolution. Scientists attribute this warming to carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, that results from burning the fossil fuels that power global industrialization, as well as to other greenhouse gases produced industrially. These gases act to trap part of the heat radiation released by sunlight striking the surface of the earth that would otherwise escape into space. CO2 has been a component of the earth's atmosphere for millions of years. Yet its concentration has increased abruptly since the industrial revolution began due to mankind's burning of fossil fuels to provide energy.  The greenhouse effect that it exerts on the planet's climate has been enhanced as a result.
Of the CO2 that enters the atmosphere, a portion is absorbed by green plants as they grow (but is released as they die and decay), and a portion is absorbed into the waters of the oceans. The majority stays in the atmosphere for at least 100 years, or longer, as there is no additional mechanism that removes it. Before the industrial revolution the CO2 cycle was in equilibrium; the gas produced by animals and decaying vegetation was absorbed by the oceans and growing plants. But the carbon contained in fossil fuels is not recycled back to the geological reservoirs that the fuels came from. This carbon follows a one-way route from underground reservoirs to new, additional atmospheric CO2 once burned to supply energy.

Water is a greenhouse substance. Water also exerts a greenhouse effect, whether as water vapor (i.e., a gas) or a liquid (including droplets in clouds and fog). In this regard, atmospheric water differs in many ways from CO2. Its vapor concentration in air is much higher than that of CO2; at "room temperature" the capacity of water in air is about 25 parts per thousand (25,000 parts per million) whereas currently the content of CO2 is about 390 parts per million. For this reason, the greenhouse effect from atmospheric water is much stronger than that of atmospheric CO2. Without the greenhouse effect of water, ambient temperatures on the earth would be far below freezing. Second, locally the actual water vapor content can be anywhere from 0 to 100% of the upper limit (the relative humidity). Globally the long-term cycle of water between water vapor, clouds and fog, rain and snow, glaciers and groundwater, and the oceans remains at equilibrium, in the absence of global warming. But thirdly, the capacity of air to hold water vapor (as the gas) increases by about 7% per degree C (3.9% per degree F). Thus as the long-term global average temperature rises because of the CO2 greenhouse effect, the overall intensity of the global water cycle will grow.

The water cycle, including all the components mentioned above, is included in global climate models. The role played by clouds in various GCMs is modeled with different parameters. As shown in the graphic, some of the sunlight directly striking clouds, especially low clouds (cumulus) and middle, layered clouds (stratus), from space is reflected back into space as unaltered visible light. This reflected light never reaches the earth and does not contribute to the greenhouse effect. The highest (cirrus) clouds, however, are high enough to be formed of ice microcrystals rather than droplets of liquid water. It is believed that cirrus clouds permit most sunlight to pass through to the earth, in contrast to the behavior of lower clouds, while still retaining the ability to act as greenhouse elements, retaining a portion of the heat energy of re-emitted light.

Skeptics: Clouds will help cool the planet. The New York Times article devoted considerable emphasis to the views of certain scientist skeptics, especially the meteorologist Richard S. Lindzen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, affirming that clouds will contribute a cooling effect as the global temperature rises.  Dr. Lindzen has studied climate for more than five decades.  According to the Times, he believes that cirrus clouds, especially over the tropics, will serve as an “iris” (i.e. the portion of the mammalian eye, or of a camera, that regulates how much light reaches the retina, or the film) as the earth warms.  Warmer atmospheric temperatures, in his view, will lead to a thinning of cirrus clouds that will permit more heat (infrared) radiation to escape into space.  This negative effect on retention of heat will reduce the overall warming of the planet. 

The Times reports that these views have been warmly received by politicians and others, such as the Heartland Institute, who are skeptical of the role of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the long-term warming of the planet.  According to the Times “most mainstream researchers consider Dr. Lindzen’s theory discredited”.  As an example, an article in 2009 by Trenberth and Fassulo , states “Many papers refute the negative feedback and iris hypothesis of Lindzen et al. [2001]”, citing as examples Hartmann and Michelsen, 2002,  “No evidence for iris”, Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc., 83, 249–254; Randall et al., 2007, “Climate models and their evaluation”, in Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, edited by S. Solomon et al., pp. 590– 662, Cambridge Univ. Press, New York; and evidence for a slight positive feedback by Lin et al., 2002, “The iris hypothesis: A negative or positive cloud feedback?”, J. Clim., 15, 3–7. 

The Times further reports that a paper published by Dr. Lindzen in 2009 included errors in data analysis that were identified by other scientists and subsequently affirmed by him.  In addition, a more recent manuscript was criticized by peer reviewers for a “prestigious American journal” and was rejected for publication.  This is significant (see this earlier post on this blog), since review by anonymous peers ensures that analysis and conclusions expressed are supported by the data (usually peer review does not assess the accuracy or validity of the data themselves).  Conversely, contemporary authors of journal articles thank their peer reviewers for offering constructive suggestions that improve the final form of the paper (for examples see Science 27 April 2012: Vol. 336 no. 6080 pp. 455-458, DOI: 10.1126/science.1212222 (see Acknowledgements); and Science 27 April 2012: Vol. 336 no. 6080 pp. 462-466; DOI: 10.1126/science.1218389 (see Acknowledgements)).

Other articles also assess cloud feedbacks.  NASA discussed (accessed May 5, 2012) long-term warming of the earth.  In addition to forecasting significant warming by the end of this century, this article states climate feedbacks could more than double predicted warming, including feedbacks “due to snow and ice, water vapor, clouds, and the carbon cycle.”  As the air warms, the ability of air to hold water vapor increases, as noted earlier.  As described above, clouds have both positive (greenhouse effect) and negative (reflection of sunlight) feedback effects on warming.  On balance, according to NASA, “most climate models predict a slight overall positive feedback or amplification of warming due to a reduction in low cloud cover.”
Discussing the role of cirrus clouds in this same post, NASA points out that they emit only small amounts of radiation because of their cold temperature.  Thus, being composed of (solid) water, cirrus clouds strongly absorb heat (infrared) radiation reaching them from below, and retain a significant fraction of that heat, leading to higher atmospheric temperature than would be the case if they were absent.  NASA states that in a world with higher average global temperatures, the air would have more water content that leads to formation of more cirrus clouds.  In this view CO2-induced greenhouse warming would be amplified by the presence of more heat-retaining cirrus clouds in the upper atmosphere. 

In a different post dated Dec. 13, 2010, NASA summarized work (accessed May 5, 2012) by Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M University that was scheduled to be published in the peer-reviewed journal Science.  Dessler identified a positive feedback effect on CO2-induced greenhouse warming arising from clouds, based on studies of data from 2000 to 2010 on low- and high-altitude clouds.  Dessler showed “that clouds amplify the warming we get from carbon dioxide.…The cloud feedback…does amplify the warming we get from greenhouse gases.”  His work also validates the ability of current GCMs to simulate observed cloud feedback effects reasonably well.

Clement and coworkers (see also a commentary by a nonparticipating scientist) analyzed the correlation of cloud cover (low- and mid-level clouds, excluding cirrus clouds) and sea surface temperature over a large portion of the northeast Pacific ocean at subtropical latitudes, using existing records, for the period 1952-2007.  In the region monitored there is a reduction in cloud cover when the sea surface temperature is warmer and vice versa.  This indicates that clouds interact with sea surface temperature in a way that amplifies warming.  The scientists then assessed whether existing GCMs in the archive of the worldwide consortium of climate scientists could reproduce their findings.  Only one of 18 models assessed succeeded in reproducing their findings in response to the warming induced by the known increase in greenhouse gases that occurred over this period.  

Trenberth and Fassulo, in the article mentioned earlier, published in 2009, modeled the effects of the complete cloud cover from 1950 to 2100 using all models in the worldwide archive.  Although they found considerable variation among models, some yielded projections for positive feedback effects from clouds, i.e., that increased surface temperatures would lead to effects on the cloud cover that amplified the increase.   
The New York Times published an article analyzing the effects of clouds on the warming of the planet.  It devoted considerable attention to skeptics who doubt that mankind’s activities and the greenhouse effect have led to long-term warming, and who have subscribed to the renegade view of Dr. Lindzen that cirrus clouds will act as an iris, releasing more heat energy to space as the earth warms. 
This post has presented background information showing that the contributions of clouds to the global climate are many, varied, and may be subject to considerable variability both in data analysis and in modeling their effects in GCMs.  It is important to understand that final effects are small numbers arrived at as the difference between large positive and negative contributions from individual processes.  Small changes in evaluating these processes can therefore lead to large changes in the final contribution, including changing from a net warming effect to a net cooling effect.
The consensus among the community of climate scientists is that the iris effect proposed by Dr. Lindzen is supported neither by experiment nor by GCM modeling.

Sea level rise is caused by expansion of ocean water as the world’s temperature rises, and by net melting of glaciers, ice sheets and ice shelves.  Ice will continue melting as long as the temperature remains above the freezing point.

Sea level rise is already impacting coastal cities in the U. S. and elsewhere.  Regular flooding based on high tide schedules is now happening, for example, in South Florida and Norfolk, VA.

Climate models project future increases in sea level rise in all scenarios examined, for modeling as distant as 300 years from now.  This will clearly damage coastal cities around the world, inflicting major property damage and requiring extensive, expensive renovation projects.

The recent report by the Risky Business Project advocates taking a business-oriented risk assessment approach to global warming.  As applied to the occurrence of sea level rise, risk management involves assessing harms and evaluating investments in both adaptation to continued sea level rise and mitigation of continued global warming.  Such investments would benefit people by protecting them from future harms arising from sea level rise, and by expanding economic activity from new projects undertaken.

Introduction.  An earlier post provided a tutorial explaining the sources of global sea level rise (SLR).  One important factor is the increase in volume that the waters of the oceans occupy as their temperature increases.  Since the oceans are contained, the only way to accommodate the increased volume is to expand upward, contributing to SLR.  The second significant contribution comes from melting of ice that originates from a land-based source.  Glaciers and ice sheets, exposed to air on their upper surfaces, melt whenever the air temperature is higher than the melting point of water.  Ice shelves, driven from land-based ice sheets to float on the ocean, melt from below whenever the sea water temperature is above its freezing point. 

The contribution from temperature-caused expansion of the oceans proceeds as long as the ocean temperature continues increasing.  It will cease if the ocean temperature stabilizes.  The contribution from melting reflects the temperature with reference to the melting point of the ice.  This contribution continues to add new liquid water to the oceans as long as the temperature of air, or of the ocean, is above the melting point of the ice.  This process continues undiminished even when the air temperature or the ocean temperature stabilizes at a value higher than the melting point.

Sea level rise is already affecting the U. S.

South Florida.  On March 19, 2014 the (U. S.) PBS NewsHour broadcast a news feature on ocean flooding in South Florida.  The frame below, taken from the broadcast, shows a street in Miami Beach, a municipality built on a barrier island facing the Atlantic Ocean, flooded with ocean water on a sunny day.
Source: PBS News Hour March 19, 2014. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/south-florida-rising-sea-levels/

Such events have occurred with some regularity in recent years.  The broadcast included an interview with Prof. Hal Wanless, of the University of Miami, who ascribes these events to worsening sea level rise.  It reported that the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers predicts a 3-7 in. (7.6-18 cm) rise in sea level for South Florida by 2030, and 9-24 in. (23-61 cm) by 2060. 

In response, the Miami Beach Public Works Department initially planned a US$200 million remediation program over the next 20 years to fend off flooding and encroachment by the ocean.  Recently the municipality of Miami Beach agreed to double its investment, to US$400 million.  More broadly, a four-county consortium in the area is planning a concerted program to address the expected sea level rise.  The local politicians are grappling with the political pressures opposing the extensive investments needed to prepare for the expected worsening of the problem.

A conference in June 2012 on the effect of global warming  focused on the projected loss of land area in South Florida over the next century due to sea level rise.  It is foreseen that the Florida Key islands would be lost, and that Miami and the surrounding area would be small islands in the encroaching Atlantic Ocean.  The report notes that this area has the most people and property endangered by sea level rise of any in the U. S.

Norfolk, Virginia.  Norfolk is at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean, Chesapeake Bay and the James River.  It is the site of a major base of the U. S. Navy which is a principal driver of economic activity in the region.  The area has been subjected to continued episodes of tidal flooding along its coastline.  In a report on the PBS Newshour in December 2012 its mayor, Paul Fraim noted that the city is repeatedly flooded at high tides, which is worsening with passing time.  The screen shot below shows a home that been repeatedly flooded in recent times.

Still frame from PBS Newshour broadcast on sea level rise affecting Norfolk VA.  The photo shows the home of Bob Parsons, who has documented the many times flooding has affected his home.
The mayor stated that parts of the city might not be habitable in 15 years, and that the city is already renovating impacted areas by raising home structures to higher levels, and raising roads.  Relocation to higher ground is also envisioned.  The U. S. Navy is replacing 14 piers because of rising water at a cost of US$490-560 million.
The Washington Post reported that according to the U. S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Norfolk, together with a 600 mile section along the U. S. East Coast, is a “sea level rise hotspot”, with SLR expected to be 3-4 times the worldwide average.  Much of this is due to a change in the Atlantic Ocean Gulf Stream that directs more water toward the U. S. eastern shore.  Norfolk in addition is slowly subsiding into the sea due to geological factors.  A Virginia study projects that SLR in the Norfolk area could be 5 ½ feet (1.68 m) by the end of this century if the world does not institute mitigation measures to curb global warming.
The report states that Norfolk engaged a Dutch firm to design an adaptation plan to protect the city.  The resulting project, involving new flood gates, building higher roads and renovating the storm sewer system would protect against water 1 foot (31 cm) higher, and cost US$1 billion, more than the city’s current annual budget. 
Sea Level Rise Around the U. S.  An interactive map of coastal and tidal regions susceptible to ocean flooding around the U. S. shows the increasing loss of land area as the sea level rises between 1 foot and 9 feet (30 cm and 274 cm).
Projections of future SLR show severe further effects to the year 2100, and the year 2300.  Schaeffer and coworkers (Nature Climate Change 2012; DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE1584) developed projections based on the warming trajectories arising from several scenarios for emissions of greenhouse gases.  These range from a continued annual emissions rate in an essentially unconstrained scenario to one with a hypothetical stringent reduction to a zero emissions rate in 2016.  Their results are summarized in the following graphic.
Projected sea level rise under various greenhouse gas emission scenarios, ranging from unconstrained (CPH reference) to stringent reduction to zero emissions in 2016 (Zero 2016).  The colored bands give full uncertainty values within the graphic, and the shaded bars to the right, for only two cases, the lowest and highest SLR projections.  Note that the time axis (horizontal) and the SLR axis (vertical) use different scales in a and b.  a, Projections for 2000-2100; the vertical scale runs to about 43 in. b, Historical data from 1000 to 2000, and projections from 2000 to 2300 with the vertical gray shading showing the present 21st century; the vertical scale runs to about 13 feet.
The results of Schaeffer and coworkers reflect in numbers the notions expressed in the Introduction; namely, that as long as the global temperature operates to keep temperatures over land ice, and under ocean-based ice shelves, above their melting points, ice will melt and contribute to further SLR.  Temperature-induced expansion of the oceans continues in scenarios with continued emissions of greenhouse gases (the upper projections in the graphics), but this writer presumes that this contribution is reduced in scenarios with limits on emissions (lower projections in the graphics).  And since global temperature depends on the total accumulated level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the temperature cannot go back to lower values, low enough to keep ice sheets and ice shelves frozen.  In contrast, panel b in the graphic above shows that sea level was essentially unchanged from the year 1000 until the beginning of the industrial revolution when humanity began burning fossil fuels.
The recent Risky Business report highlights the important role that risk analysis can play in planning future responses to global warming.  The effects of warming can be viewed as shifting a probability curve giving the likelihood of occurrence of an extreme event with major damaging effects “to the right”, i.e., in the direction of higher likelihood of occurrence.  An example drawn from the topic of this post could be an extreme effect from sea flooding due to rising temperatures.  Such disasters wreak significant socioeconomic hardship on those affected.  The report suggests that risk management could develop programs for investing in infrastructure to minimize future risk.
The risk of harms from SLR is extremely high, according to the model projections shown in the graphic above.  In the framework of the Risky Business report, risk management under these circumstances leads to the conclusion that investments to help mitigate further warming, as well as adaptive investments to strengthen infrastructure to withstand SLR, are both warranted.  Risk management should be adopted worldwide, since global warming is a universal phenomenon involving all nations that emit greenhouse gases, and the effects of SLR likewise are felt worldwide.
The risks arise because around the world, many cities are situated along coastlines, and as countries develop their populations tend to leave rural settings and gravitate to their cities.  Among developed countries also, many cities are in coastal settings. 
Focusing on the U. S., the examples of regular inundations from the ocean, described above, are not exceptional.  SLR aggravates tidal flooding, and sets the stage for more damaging storm surges in extreme weather events.  The financial costs of such damages are very large, and are met from public coffers and private risk insurance.  Both these coverages will increase as SLR worsens.
Risk management entails investments that would both minimize further warming and protect against damage when SLR threats are present.  Such investment would help lower future damage costs, and contribute significantly to the economy by increasing employment in the industries involved.  Thus the risk management evaluation of SLR and its attendant damages leads to activities that minimize future harms to coastal communities and expands economic growth.  Both of these outcomes are highly desirable.

The developing world generally has higher rates of population growth and economic development than do developed countries.  Energy use and greenhouse gas emissions of China and India, the most important examples of developing countries, have grown 4- to 6-fold from 1980 to 2009.  They are projected to continue growing rapidly in coming decades.

To the extent that such development continues without constraint on emissions of greenhouse gases, the world risks exceeding the limit of an increase in worldwide average temperature of 2ºC agreed to by the nations of the world.  Warming worldwide temperatures bring with them increased occurrence of extreme weather events that cause high levels of physical and economic harms.  Instead of expanding use of fossil fuels, the nations of the world should agree on new measures to “decarbonize” energy production and limit greenhouse gas emissions, thereby constraining planetary temperature rise within the agreed limit.

Introduction.  The use of energy, primarily provided by fossil fuels, across the globe has been expanding inexorably over past decades, and is forecast to continue growing by large amounts in coming decades.  Correspondingly the rate of emission of resulting greenhouse gases is also rising dramatically.  Most of this growth originates in the developing countries of the world, which generally are expanding both in their populations and in their economic activity.  Both factors contribute to expanding demand for energy.  This post examines these issues.

Many points are summarized in the main body of this post, with expanded information and data provided in the Details section at the end.
Historical trends for energy use and CO2 emissions for China and India.  China and India are the largest countries among the non-OECD nations (OECD, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, considered to be developed countries; see Note 1; non-OECD countries considered to be developing countries).  They have been growing rapidly in economic productivity, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions over the last two decades.  This post exemplifies the expansion of the energy economies of developing countries by focusing on these two countries. 

In 2009 China was the largest, and India was the fourth largest, consumer of energy in the world (U. S. Energy Information Agency (USEIA) India analysis, Nov. 21, 2011).  As India’s population expands and the national economies of both countries grow (see population and GDP tables below in the section Projected future trends), energy demand is expected to rise significantly.

Past growth in use of fossil fuels by China and India is summarized here.  For more details and graphics please see the Details section below. 

Generally, use of fossil fuels, and especially of coal and oil, has grown 4- to 6-fold, or even more, from 1980 to 2009.  Emissions of CO2, the greenhouse gas that is the product of burning fossil fuels, likewise grew at comparable rates.

Energy use and emissions for the period from 1997, the year the Kyoto Protocol was agreed on, and the last year in the graphs below, 2009, are evaluated.  The date of the Kyoto Protocol is used here, because, as developing countries, China and India were excluded from coverage by its terms while many developed countries would be bound by it.  For this period:

  • coal use by China grew by 241%, and use by India grew by 195%;
  • China’s use of oil grew 213% from 1997 to 2009, and India’s grew by 176%; and
  • CO2 emissions from China grew by 250% between 1997 and 2009, and from India by 184%.

Coal is the predominant source of energy in China by far.  Among renewable sources, hydroelectric power constituted 6% of energy consumption.

Coal is a large source of energy for India as well as for China.  It is also significant that 24% of energy in India comes from combustible biomass, much of which originates from animal waste.

Neither country had large energy sources from renewable sources such as wind and solar power as of 2008-2009.

Projected future trends

World population growth.  The USEIA issued its International Energy Outlook 2011 (IEO) in September 2011.  The IEO projects population increases among countries of the world in its International Energy Outlook 2011.  Data extracted from this report for the U. S., OECD, China and India include the following:

                   Population growth



Av. annual
% chg.
Source: USEIA, International Energy Outlook 2011  http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/ieo/pdf/0484(2011).pdf

World per capita gross domestic product (GDP).  The USEIA projects the growth in economic activity among countries and regions of the world in its IEO.  Data for per capita GDP include the following:

Per capita GDP expressed in purchasing power parity, using 2005 USD



Av. annual
% chg.
Source: USEIA, International Energy Outlook 2011  http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/ieo/pdf/0484(2011).pdf  

Projected future growth in energy use.  (See Details for further information.)

Projections of future energy use drawn from the IEO relate to the USEIA’s Reference case, in which it is assumed that economic growth continues as at present, and that no policy changes are made in the future that are not currently operative.  This is frequently referred to as “business-as-usual”.

In its press release, USEIA states that, largely because of strong economic growth in developing countries (non-OECD countries) including the two leaders, China and India, the world’s energy use is expected to increase 53% between 2008 and 2035.  Energy use is closely tied to the growth in economic activity; the table above shows that per capita GDP is projected to grow by 5.7%/yr in China, and by 4.6%/yr in India, much more rapidly than in developed countries. These two countries alone will be responsible for half of the world’s increase in energy use.

An extract of data presented in the IEO is tabulated in the Details section at the end of this post, following the Discussion.  A graphical presentation of projected energy use is shown here.

Source: USEIA, International Energy Outlook 2011  http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/ieo/pdf/0484(2011).pdf

China and India consumed 21% of the world’s energy in 2008.  Their energy use is expected to more than double over the period shown, constituting 31% of the world’s energy use in 2035.  The annualized rate of increase across all non-OECD countries is 2.3%, whereas for the developed countries (OECD), the annualized rate of increase is only 0.6% (see the graphic above).

Projected growth in CO2 emissions.  The IEO includes predictions for growth in CO2 emissions originating from fossil fuels.  Data from the table in the Details section are shown in the chart below.

Source: USEIA, International Energy Outlook 2011  http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/ieo/pdf/0484(2011).pdf

Emissions from India grow by 208% from 2008 to 2035, and those from China grow by 198%.  It is seen that emission growth from the U. S. and from the OECD as a whole are much more modest.  The nations of the European Union, included in the OECD, have embarked on an ambitious program (linked here and here) to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050.  Clearly this falls outside the assumptions of the USEIA Reference case, and is not reflected in the data for the OECD.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) published its World Energy Outlook 2011 (WEO 2011) on Nov. 9, 2011.  It includes projections based on three scenarios.  The Current Policy Scenario (CPS) assumes no additional emissions policies implemented beyond those already in place in 2011.  This inaction is projected to lead to an increase in long-term global average temperature of 6ºC (10.8ºF) by 2035.  The intermediate New Policies Scenario includes policies intended to reduce emissions, but not by enough to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels. It is projected to lead to an increase in long-term global average temperature of 3.5ºC (6.3ºF).  The 450 Policy Scenario (450 PS) implements strict controls on new emissions that are intended to stabilize the atmospheric CO2 concentration at 450 parts per million; this is the level deemed adequate to keep the increase in long-term global average temperature within 2ºC (3.6ºF) above the pre-industrial level.  This upper limit is based on the Fourth Assessment Report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was issued in 2007.

The IEA graphic below compares projections of Total Primary Energy Supply by global regions for two scenarios, CPS and 450 PS.
Comparison of total world energy supply under the CPS and the 450 PS. Historical data for 1990 and 2008, and projected results under the two policies for 2015, 2020, 2025 and 2035.  Blue: OECD+ (developed countries); Green: OME, other major economies (developing countries); Purple: OC, other countries (developing countries); (see Note 2); Orange: Intl. bunkers, international air and marine transportation.
Source: IEA, 2011 Key World Energy Statistics; http://www.iea.org/textbase/nppdf/free/2011/key_world_energy_stats.pdf

The chart above illustrates annual rates of use of energy, indicating that each year large amounts of the greenhouse gas CO2 are emitted.  Under CPS, the annual rate keeps increasing, adding to atmospheric concentrations of CO2 at an ever-increasing rate.  Under 450 the annual rate appears to level off, but each year additional CO2 still is emitted. 

Nevertheless, it is seen that by 2035, adopting the stringent 450 Policy Scenario results in an overall projected decrease of 22% in total energy needed compared to CPS.  The largest reduction in energy use is from the large economies of the developing world (OME), about 23%; followed by reductions in energy use by other developing countries (OC), about 17%, and reductions by OECD+ (developed countries) of about 13%.


The Cancun Agreements were the final product (text and press release) of the 2010 conference, held under the auspices of the United Nations, and were approved by all 193 nations except one. 

Among the commitments made in Cancun, developing countries, on a voluntary basis, submitted “nationally appropriate mitigation actions” planned for coming years to the United Nations supervisory body.  Whereas many countries with smaller economies enumerated detailed goals and steps, countries such as China and India that are major emitters of greenhouse gases provided only brief, more generic, statements of goals (see the table below):

Year for goal
Statement of goal
Voluntary measures to reduce CO2 emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP; emissions intensity) by 40–45% compared to 2005, increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 15%, and to increase forest coverage by 40 million hectares (99 million acres).
Voluntary efforts to reduce emissions intensity of its GDP by 20–25% compared with the 2005 level, excluding emissions from agriculture.

Developing countries such as China have long stressed their improvement of energy intensity, a measure of increasing the efficiency of their use of energy.  Yet, as seen in this post, their absolute amounts of energy used and greenhouse gas emitted continue growing at significant rates, responding to the prodigious rate of expansion of their economies, improvement in energy intensity notwithstanding.

The IEA warned in WEO 2011, according to its press release, that the world will enter “an insecure, inefficient and high-carbon energy system” unless it implements strong new policies to lower future emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.  Recent developments that signal  this urgency include the Fukushima nuclear accident which has deflated enthusiasm for nuclear energy, turmoil in the Middle East which creates instability in oil supplies and costs, and a strong increase in energy demand in 2010 which led to record high emissions of CO2.

Fatih Birol, IEA’s Chief Economist, points out that as time passes without significant action to mitigate emissions, the world is becoming “locked in” to a high-carbon energy infrastructure.  Up to the point of changing policy, all preexisting energy-producing and –consuming infrastructure commits the world to continuing its carbon-inefficient energy economy.  They continue to emit CO2 annually during their service lifetimes according to their originally designed (less efficient) operating specifications.  This is illustrated in the following graphic, which considers that 2010 is the year of commitment.

Lock-in of annual rates of CO2 emissions from energy-producing and energy-consuming physical installations as of 2010, shown in the various SOLID colors.  Projected additional annual rates of emissions from facilities newly installed after 2010, allowable under the 450 Policy Scenario, are shown in the HATCHED GREEN area at the top of the diagram. 450 envisions that the annual rate of emissions reaches a maximum by 2017 and then begins declining.
© OECD/IEA 2011.  Source: IEA, World Energy Outlook 2011; http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/docs/weo2011/key_graphs.pdf

In the graphic above emissions from committed infrastructure (solid colors) are projected to decrease year by year as the various facilities age and are removed from service.  The graphic illustrates the maneuvering leeway (green shading) in annual CO2 emissions that are consistent with the 450 Policy Scenario, which is intended to ensure that the long-term average increase in global temperature is constrained to 2ºC (3.6ºF).  The IEA press release states

“Four-fifths of the total energy-related CO2 emissions permitted to 2035 in the 450 Scenario are already locked-in by existing capital stock…. Without further action by 2017, the energy-related infrastructure then in place would generate all the CO2 emissions allowed in the 450 Scenario up to 2035. Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

The leeway emissions are the only portions of the world’s energy economy available for manipulation to reduce overall CO2 emissions.

The Kyoto Protocol, covering many developed nations but not the U. S., expires in 2012.  It had been the goal of the U. N. conferences in Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun (2010) to negotiate a new treaty to follow Kyoto as it expired.  But the nations of the world could not agree on terms.  In 2011, at the Durban conference conference, this discord was so fundamental that now the goal has been pushed back to reach an agreement by 2015, with the objective of having it come into force by 2020.  Unfortunately, these dates are greatly extended from earlier timelines.  They permit greenhouse gases to be emitted unconstrained and to continue accumulating in the earth’s atmosphere without sanctions in the interim.  Because of the delay, climate scientists are concerned that the global average temperature will increase considerably more than previously hoped.  This would mean severe changes in climate and weather, leading to increased numbers and severity of extreme weather events. 

Greenhouse gas emissions are a global problem, demanding a global solution.  Once emitted into the atmosphere, CO2 and other greenhouse gases do not carry a label indicating where on the globe they originated from.  Emissions from any country become the greenhouse effect problem of every country.  The increase in the long-term global average temperature, and its attendant extremes of weather events, damages caused and expenses incurred, affect all the nations of the world. 

Rather than continuing the unabated expansion of the use of fossil fuels, and incurring unforeseen expenses caused by extreme weather events, the nations of the world should be decarbonizing their energy.  Comparable amounts of capital could be invested and comparable numbers of new jobs could be created that would be directed to developing renewable sources of energy or to implementing “zero-emissions” use of fossil fuels (exemplified by the experimental technology of carbon capture and storage).  It behooves all nations to embark on greenhouse gas mitigation measures as soon as possible, and not to continue “business-as-usual”.



Historical trends for energy use and CO2 emissions for China and India.

Trends for coal and oil use in China and India are shown below, as these are the principal fossil fuels used in each country for electricity generation and transportation, respectively.  Values for 1997, the year the Kyoto Protocol was agreed on, and the last year in the graph, 2009, are shown.  The date of the Kyoto Protocol is used here, because, as developing countries, China and India were excluded from coverage by its terms.

Use of coal is shown below.
Use of coal 1980-2009, million short tons/year, for China and India.  The scale for China runs from 0 to 3500, and that for India runs from 0 to 700.

From 1997 to 2009, coal use by China grew by 241%, and use by India grew by 195%.  For a portion of this period, it is believed that China was commissioning new coal-fired electricity plants at the rate of about two per week.

Total use of oil in thousands of barrels/day between 1980 and 2009 for China and India.  The scale for China runs from 0 to 9000, and that for India runs from 0 to 3500.

China’s use of oil grew 213% from 1997 to 2009, and India’s grew by 176%.
China’s use of petroleum increased a further 10% from 2009 to 2010, and is expected to grow at that rate in the next few years  (USEIA China Analysis 2011).  It produces considerable oil domestically, but also imports large amounts, currently about the same as is produced domestically. 

The distribution of the sources of energy for China and India is shown in the chart below, for 2008 or 2009.

Coal is the predominant source of energy in China by far.  Among renewable sources, hydroelectric power constituted 6% of energy consumption; China is assertively developing this source.  The total amount of hydroelectric power will expand considerably in 2012 as all the turbines at the Three Gorges Dam begin operating.

The graphic shows that coal is a large source of energy for India as well as in China.  It is also significant that 24% of energy in India comes from combustible biomass, much of which originates from animal waste.

Other than hydroelectric power, neither country had large energy sources from renewable sources such as wind and solar power as of 2008-2009.
Carbon dioxide emissions attributed to the burning of fossil fuels for the two countries are shown below.
Total carbon dioxide emissions from use of fossil fuels 1980-2009 for China and India, million metric tons/year.  The scale for China runs from 0 to 8000, and that for India runs from 0 to 1800.

CO2 emissions from China grew by 250% between 1997 and 2009, and from India by 184%.  It is noteworthy that, as expected, the trajectory of emissions from China closely resembles the pattern of its coal use (see earlier graphic, above).

Projected future growth in energy use.

Consumption of all fossil fuels is projected to grow dramatically during this period.  Use of coal is projected to increase from 139 quadrillion Btu in 2008 to 209 quadrillion Btu in 2035, a change of 50%.  China alone is responsible for 76% of the increase in use of coal.  India and other Asian countries also contribute significantly (19%) to this increase, at least in part because coal is cheaper to use than other sources of energy. 

Use of energy in transportation of people and goods is projected to grow through 2035 in the Reference case, almost entirely from non-OECD countries.  As non-OECD countries grow economically, the demand for transportation services grows significantly, especially the demand for personal cars.  Energy consumption in transportation almost doubles, growing at a rate of 2.6%/yr in the non-OECD countries, but only at 0.3%/yr in OECD countries.

Renewable energy across the globe is provided largely by hydroelectric generation and wind; solar generation currently plays a much smaller role.  In OECD countries, the major growth in renewables through 2035 is expected to come from wind and solar power, as potential hydroelectric sites are already fully developed.  In non-OECD countries, however, hydroelectric generation is still growing at a fast pace as dam sites continue to be exploited.

Electricity generation in China is expanding very rapidly, and is expected to continue to do so (USEIA China Analysis 2011).   In 2008 the generating capacity was 797 GW of which almost 80% was generated from coal.  It is expected that by 2020 the capacity will double to 1,600 GW, and to generate 3 times as much electricity by 2035 as was produced in 2009.  To accommodate this increased capacity, the Chinese are also aggressively expanding their transmission grid.  Since most of the generating capacity comes from conventional thermal sources supplied largely by burning coal and natural gas, it is to be expected that emissions of CO2 will increase correspondingly.  The government of China expects that thermal generation capacity will increase from 652 GW in 2009 to 1,000 GW in 2020.  Coal will remain the principal fuel because of its domestic abundance, although older plants will be decommissioned in favor of larger, more efficient generators.  Natural gas will play a small but increasing role in the future.

Among renewable sources, hydroelectric power plays a larger role in China than in any other country, and will continue to grow.  For instance the massive Three Gorges Dam will become fully operational in 2012.  Wind power is expanding at a rapid rate, but even so remains a miniscule fraction of China’s electric generating portfolio.

Electricity generation in India.  India had about 177 GW of generating capacity in place in 2008 (USEIA India analysis).  Conventional thermal generation (mostly coal) provided 80% of that, with hydroelectric generation providing most of the remainder.  Nuclear and renewable power provided only a few percent of India’s electricity.  About 35% of the population lacks access to electricity, mostly in rural areas, representing over 400 million people.  Even in the main cities there are frequent blackouts.

Projections of future energy use under the USEIA’s Reference case are drawn from IEO and tabulated here.

Source: USEIA, International Energy Outlook 2011  http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/ieo/pdf/0484(2011).pdf



1. Current OECD member countries included in this IEO are the United States, Canada, Mexico, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark,
Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.

2. OECD+: OECD as in Note 1 plus Bulgaria, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Romania;
OME (other major economies), Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russian Federation and Middle East;
OC (other countries), the world other than OECD+ and OME.
© 2011 Henry Auer