Category Archives: environment

Atmospheric CO2 Registers China’s Slowing Economy

Pollution (China) photo by Anjali aisha via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Conflict03-pollution-china_13151_600x450.jpg

Over the last several months, global atmospheric carbon dioxide data has been rising. That outcome was to be expected after the Chinese government lifted its zero-COVID lockdowns. China is, after all, the world's largest contemporary producer of total CO₂ emissions by a widening margin and has become the third largest per capita CO₂ emitter, which is amazing given how large its population is. No more lockdowns would mean more economic activity and more carbon dioxide emissions from the country.

But after a strong start, China's economic recovery began sputtering. Even so, the pace at which carbon dioxide accumulates in the Earth's air continued rising at a fast clip.

The problem with that is it shouldn't have been given China's economic problems. China was getting very little economic bang for its fossil fuel-burning buck, so to speak.

Last month, we resolved that anomaly thanks to reports of drought conditions in China. Those conditions prompted the Chinese government to take two steps. First, they ordered many Chinese hydroelectric facilities to stop producing energy, preserving the dwindling water supply at its dammed reservoirs. Second, they ordered more coal-fired power generation plants online to attempt to make up for the loss of CO₂-free electricity produced by its now offline hydroelectric power plants.

These actions account for why CO₂ levels continued to rise even though China's economy experienced little economic gain to go along with it.

August 2023 atmospheric CO&8322; concentration data indicates a pause in its rate of increase, which is shown in the following chart. This change suggests China's economic troubles may have finally caught up with its stimulated efforts to keep its lights on.

Trailing Twelve Month Average Year-Over-Year Change in Parts per Million of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, January 2000-August 2023

How long the pause might last remains to be seen. At some point, China's hydroelectric plants should come back online and China's economy should start growing again. The first factor would be expected to reduce the country's CO₂ output, the other to increase it. It's an open question how it will net out as these positive developments happen.

What if there are more negative developments? The Chinese government has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to ramp up coal-based power plants to support stimulus efforts to offset negative headwinds for its economy should they continue. In addition to its drought-related problems, we can point to its 2015-16 stimulus and its response to the 2018-19 tariff war with the U.S. as recent examples when it did.

At this point, it would be more remarkable if they did not. With the Chinese government rushing to get as many fossil fuel-burning power plants up and running as fast as it can, changes in atmospheric CO₂ levels will be telling us a lot about the state of China's economy for decades to come.

Image credit: Pollution (China) photo by Anjali aisha via Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons. Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0).

How Much Fossil Fuel CO2 Is in the Air?

NOAA: Carbon Cycle Illustration - https://www.noaa.gov/media/image_download/d5aaf396-3c2c-4089-9654-1e1de5a1f963

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution in 1750 through 2021, people have burned enough coal, oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels to add about 1,737 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere.

But because of the Earth's carbon cycle, a large percentage of those emissions have been extracted from the air. Through 2021, land and sea-based carbon sinks have removed about 37% of total historic CO₂ emissions.

As a general rule of thumb, the older the fossil fuel emission, the more of it has been removed from the atmosphere, reducing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air below what it would otherwise be without those natural processes. The following chart shows the history of cumulative fossil fuel emissions from 1750 through 2021, including the estimated amount of carbon dioxide cumulatively absorbed over that time.

Cumulative Fossil Fuel CO2 Emissions, 1750 - 2021

Through 2021, about 642 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide have been removed from the Earth's atmosphere by the planet's natural carbon cycle. That leaves about 1,095 billion metric tons that have not.

The chart also shows a widening gap between the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from fossil fuels and the amount recovered through the carbon cycle. That's attributable to two factors. First, CO₂ emissions have been increasing rapidly, primarily due to China's growing carbon footprint over the last 30 years. Second, the newest emissions have had the least amount of time in which the natural carbon cycle can do its work.

That time matters. If you look closely at the chart to examine the cumulative emissions produced through 1990, you'll find that over half those CO₂ emissions are no longer present in the atmosphere. Because of the effect of the carbon cycle in absorbing older carbon dioxide emissions, the amount of carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere represents more a consequence of what has been happening in the last 30 years than what happened in the more distant past.

The natural carbon cycle is only able to remove above 80% of these carbon dioxide emissions over a 300 year period. The remaining 20% takes much longer to absorb because it requires geologic processes that occur over thousands of years. Much of the carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies in development today are being developed with an eye to reducing the initial amount of CO₂ emissions produced and to, in effect, mop up the long-term remainder.

Analyst's Notes

Bonus chart! Because the featured chart illustrates the exponential growth of fossil fuel-based carbon dioxide emissions that spans several orders of magnitude, here's a link to a second chart presenting the same data using a logarithmic scale. We opted to feature only the chart showing the data on a linear scale since it better illustrates the relative percentage share of absorbed carbon dioxide emissions with respect to the total.

References

Friedlingstein et al. Global Carbon Budget 2022, Earth System Science Data, 11 November 2022. DOI: 10.5194/essd-14-4811-2022.

Political Calculations. How Long Does Carbon Dioxide Stay in the Atmosphere? [Online Article, Tool]. 19 July 2023.

Image credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Carbon Cycle Illustration. 2019. Public Domain Image.

Pace of Global CO2 Emissions Increases, Global Economy Not Growing With Them

Smoke in a Valley during Fire Season British Columbia photo by Landon Parenteau - https://unsplash.com/photos/E2JSLOhVQ_U

July 2023 saw the pace of accumulation of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere increase again, continuing a trend that began after China's government lifted its zero-COVID lockdowns at the end of 2022.

Normally, the lifting of such repressive conditions would be a boost for the country's economy, which would be expected to be accompanied by increased CO₂ emissions. China is, by a very wide margin, the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide into the air.

In the first quarter of 2023, that's what it looked like, but since that initial rebound, China's economy has been reported to be either "sputtering" or "faltering" depending on whichever thesaurus the reporters have been using.

And yet, the rate at which the carbon dioxide is being emitted into the atmosphere has continued to rise rapidly. That increase should be a sign of increased economic activity, particularly in China. But with China's economy having trouble gaining traction, that's a good indication something else is going on. Here's the latest update to our chart tracking the rate of change of atmospheric CO₂ levels in the 21st century that shows the rising trend:

Trailing Twelve Month Average Year-Over-Year Change in Parts per Million of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, January 2000 - July 2023

We recently got a good indication of what that something else might be from Reuters, which reports that the Chinese government has ramped up its burning of coal to generate power because the country's hydropower has been largely taken offline because of sustained drought.

China has leant hard on coal-fired power plants as well as wind and solar generators to make up for a shortfall in hydroelectric generation as a result of low rainfall across the south since the middle of 2022.

China’s generation increased by +173 billion kilowatt-hours (+5.3%) in the first five months of the year compared with the same period in 2022, data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) showed.

Big increases from mostly coal-fired thermal generators (+149 billion kWh), wind farms (+79 billion kWh) and solar generators (+19 billion kWh) offset a fall in hydro production (-82 billion kWh).

The net increase represents China's efforts to stimuluate its sputtering economy, above and beyond what it is taking to compensate for the unreliability of its hydroelectric power generating facilities in the face of drought.

There's more going on in the world adding to atmospheric CO₂. Canada's wildfires are estimated to have added 290 megatons of extra carbon dioxide to the Earth's air in 2023, which is the equivalent of about half of Canada's annual carbon dioxide emissions in a recent years. By comparison, China'a annual CO₂ output is about 20 times larger, so even with Canada's wildfires, China is still dominating global carbon dioxide emissions.

And then there's a new El Niño event, which was just officially declared in June 2023. El Niño events are associated with spikes in carbon dioxide emissions, largely because of their associated changes in weather patterns. In both 1998 and 2015, those changes contributed to exceptionally large wildfires in Indonesia, which greatly added to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

Canada's wildfires pre-date the new El Niño event, so its potential impact is still yet to be felt.

Together, these factors produce the result of the pace of global CO₂ emissions increasing, which is not being matched by a similar rate of growth in the global economy.

References

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Earth System Research Laboratory. Mauna Loa Observatory CO2 Data. [Text File]. Updated 5 August 2023.

Image credit: Smoke in a Valley during Fire Season British Columbia photo by Landon Parenteau on Unsplash.

How Long Does Carbon Dioxide Stay in the Atmosphere?

Demonstrative example of Carbon Cycle - Source: Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carbon_cycle.jpg

How long does excess CO₂ stay in the atmosphere?

That question is surprisingly difficult to answer, because unlike greenhouse gases like methane (11.8 years) or nitrous oxide (109 years), climate scientists say there are multiple answers to it. Those answers include ones that apply when the cumulative accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is low, as in the past-to-present period, or when the accumulation of CO₂ in the air reaches the much higher levels they project in the future.

And then there's the complexity of the carbon cycle itself. Some parts of that process start almost immediately. Other parts take place over decades, if not centuries. And that's before we get to the geological processes that take millennia!

Because we have an upcoming project that focuses on the past-to-present period, we've put together the following chart and tool to estimate how much of a given year's excess carbon dioxide emissions remain after a given number of years. Here's the chart, which is based on estimates published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007.

Percentage of Excess CO₂ Remaining in Atmosphere After Year of Emission

Here's the description of what the chart is illustrating:

   

Carbon dioxide cycles between the atmosphere, oceans and land biosphere. Its removal from the atmosphere involves a range of processes with different time scales. About 50% of a CO₂ increase will be removed from the atmosphere within 30 years, and a further 30% will be removed within a few centuries. The remaining 20% may stay in the atmosphere for many thousands of years.

 

Later findings from May 2009 indicate the drawdown of excess CO₂ "is accurate for relatively small amounts of emissions at the present time", which in May 2009, meant an average atmospheric concentration of 390.36 parts per million. Fourteen years later, the average atmospheric concentration of CO₂ measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory increased by less than 9%, so we'll assume the math done by the tool below based on the absorption of CO₂ by plants and the ocean is still very reasonably close to accurate.

Here's the tool, where you can find out what percent of the excess CO₂ emissions from a past year might still be left in the air after the elapsed number of years you enter. If you're accessing this article on a site that republishes our RSS news feed, please click through to our site to access a working version.

Time Since Excess Carbon Dioxide Was Emitted
Input Data Values
Years Since CO₂ First Emitted

Percentage of Excess CO₂ Remaining in Atmosphere
Calculated Results Values
Percentage Remaining

In the tool and chart, we've arbitrarily capped the number of years to estimate the percentage carbon dioxide remaining at 600 years. That's actually more twice as long as we need for an upcoming project where we'll make use of the math behind this tool. Seeing as there are fewer than 300 years of excess carbon dioxide emission generation that are attributable to large-scale human industrial processes, we don't need more than that!

References

Presented in reverse chronological order. We had to daisy chain through multiple references to arrive at the estimates we presented above and verify their applicability to historic data.

NASA. Global Climate Change. Graphic: Major Greenhouse Gas Sources, Lifespans, and Possible Added Heat. Online Article. 22 June 2023.

Forster, P., T. Storelvmo, K. Armour, W. Collins, J.-L. Dufresne, D. Frame, D.J. Lunt, T. Mauritsen, M.D. Palmer, M. Watanabe, M. Wild, and H. Zhang, 2021: The Earth’s Energy Budget, Climate Feedbacks, and Climate Sensitivity. In Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M.I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T.K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu, and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, pp. 923–1054, doi:. 923–1054. [PDF Document]. DOI: 10.1017/9781009157896.009.

Stocker, B., Roth, R., Joos, F. et al. Multiple greenhouse-gas feedbacks from the land biosphere under future climate change scenarios. Nature Clim Change 3, 666–672 (2013). DOI: 10.1038/nclimate1864.

M. Eby, K. Zickfeld, A. Montenegro, D. Archer, K. J. Meissner, and A. J. Weaver. Lifetime of Anthropogenic Climate Change: Millennial Time Scales of Potential CO₂ and Surface Temperature Perturbations. Journal of Climate, Volume 22. 15 May 2009. 2501-2511. [Ungated PDF Document]. DOI: 10.1175/2008JCLI2554.1.

Archer, D., Brovkin, V. The millennial atmospheric lifetime of anthropogenic CO2. Climatic Change 90, 283–297 (2008). [PDF Document]. DOI: 10.1007/s10584-008-9413-1.

Moore, Lisa. Greenhouse Gases: How Long Will They Last? Environmental Defense Fund Climate 411 Blog. [Online Article]. 26 February 2008.

Denman, K. L., and Coauthors, 2007: Couplings between changes in the climate system and biogeochemistry. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, S. Solomon et al., Eds., Cambridge University Press, 589–662. [PDF Document]. DOI: 10.1080/03736245.2010.480842.

Image credit: Demonstrative example of Carbon Cycle by U.S. Department of Energy Biological and Environmental Research Information System via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

China’s Carbon Dioxide Emissions vs the World

The Energy Institute has taken over publishing the annual Statistical Review of World Energy from BP this year. This year's edition has the world's carbon dioxide emission data available through 2022, which reveals just how incredibly large China's carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from its energy production and process emissions plus any methane and flaring operations are compared to the rest of the world.

We've created the following map to illustrate how many other nations' CO₂ emissions it takes to nearly match China's output.

China's 2022 CO2 Emissions Nearly the Same as Americas and Europe Combined

In putting the map together, we started with the next largest source (the United States) and kept adding adjacent countries with the goal of trying to match China's 2022 CO₂ output without going over it. When we ran out of countries to include in the Americas, we switched to Europe and started with that continent's largest source of carbon dioxide emissions (Germany) and continued the process. Had China's emissions been just 44.3 million tonnes higher, Bulgaria would have been included with the other nations of Europe.

Looking at 2023, we find the rate at which carbon dioxide is accumulating in the Earth's atmosphere slowed a bit from its pace of increase since the Chinese government ended its zero-COVID lockdowns at the end of December 2022. The following chart shows the latest rise in the rate of CO₂ accumulation in the Earth's atmosphere based on measurements of its changing concentration taken by the Mauna Loa Observatory.

Trailing Twelve Month Average Year-Over-Year Change in Parts per Million of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, January 2000 - June 2023

The big story here continues to be the faltering of China's economy, which isn't responding as expected to the Chinese government's stimulus efforts. Those stimulus efforts have included the expansion of China's coal production industry and its imports of coal to power it's new coal-fired power generation plants to sustain its internal economic growth.

Data sources confirm China's emissions in 2023 are substantially higher than they were before the Coronavirus Pandemic:

We examined data from Carbon Monitor, which provides science-based estimates of daily CO₂ emissions across the world. We compared emissions data from January to April 2019 (which represents typical pre-pandemic conditions in China) with the corresponding months in 2023. This period followed the removal of most COVID-related restrictions in China – such as testing requirements and quarantine rules – which essentially restored the country’s economy to business-as-usual.

We found average daily carbon emissions increased substantially between the two periods. In the first four months of 2019, China’s transport, industry, energy and residential sectors together emitted an average 28.2 million tonnes of CO₂ a day. In the first four months of 2023, daily emissions from those sectors were an average 30.9 million tonnes....

Energy production from solar and wind in China did increase substantially between the two periods. But the growth was outweighed by electricity generated from fossil fuels.

Separate data show the growth of coal production in China has accelerated. In the two years prior to the pandemic, coal production variously fell or only grew slightly. But coal production grew during the pandemic, and this has continued. In the year to April 2023, coal production increased by about 5%.

While coal’s share of energy consumption fell substantially from 2007 to 2019, it has changed little since then. That’s mainly because energy use is growing fastest in the electricity sector, which remains dominated by coal.

Leaving China behind and looking forward, the data through June 2023 is starting to reflect the contribution of a new El Niño event, the last two of which were accompanied by large wildfire events in Indonesia that contributed to extra carbon dioxide entering the Earth's air. This year, the very large, mostly unmitigated wildfires in Canada are already adding to the extra CO₂ contribution.

References

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Earth System Research Laboratory. Mauna Loa Observatory CO2 Data. [Text File]. Updated 5 July 2023.

Energy Institute. EI Statistical Review of World Energy 2023. [PDF Document]. 26 June 2023.

maanyos. China emits more CO2 than the entire Western hemisphere. r/dataisbeautiful. September 2022. maanyos' map is the original inspiration behind our own updated map, which we chose to generate using the same tool, but following a different methodology.