Eliminating carbon emissions — EPA can ask, encourage, or force a change. Which do you think will work?

Part of the buzz around the coming release of Obama’s new EPA coal regulations is its rumored proposal of a cap-and-trade system for limiting carbon emissions. I’ll analyze the whole set of rules later, but let’s look for a moment at three ways of eliminating carbon emissions.

If someone is doing a bad thing, in your home or in the world, there are three main kinds of responses:

▪ You can ask the person to change
▪ You can encourage the person to change
▪ You can force the person to change

Here we take a look at carbon emissions, what we can do about it, and what’s likely coming from Obama’s EPA.

How much carbon are we emitting now?

The world is emitting carbon at a rate of about 10 GtC (gigatons of carbon) per year, which translates to about 37 GtCO2 per year, since carbon in the air comes “packaged” in CO2 molecules, and the oxygen molecules have weight also. Adding or pulling out atmospheric carbon mainly means adding or pulling out CO2. (For more on these sometimes confusing units of measure, see below.)

In addition, the rate of emissions has been accelerating, as you might expect. Here’s a look at the growth in the rate of carbon emissions (my emphasis):

In 2004 … we were emitting about 7 GtC/yr. [S]ome years later … we had increased emissions to about 8 GtC/yr. In 2011 … the latest emissions amount [was] 9 GtC/yr. In other words, we are still following the BAU [“business as usual”] path – more and more CO2 emitted each year, rather than leveling off.

So three things to keep in mind. First, the world is at or above 10 GtC emissions per year by now. So keep the number 10 GtC in mind. That’s our current “spew” rate.

Second, that number has been rising quickly. Going from 7 GtC/year in 2004 to 10 GtC/year today means we’re increasing our emissions at an average rate of 0.3 GtC per year on top of the existing number, just like compound interest. This means our emissions will be 11 GtC/year by 2017, 12 GtC/year by 2020, and so on, if we keep going as we have been.

Third, carbon emission translates to parts-per-million (ppm) of CO2 in the air in a predictable way. The formula commonly used is:

1 ppm CO2 [in the air] = 2.12 GtC [in the air]

Using rough math, and accounting for the fact that only about half of all emitted carbon stays in the air, we can say:

5 GtC emissions going into the air = ~1 ppm CO2 remaining in the air

(The calculated historical number is 4.8. Five is a pretty good approximation.)

So do the math. Ten GtC emitted per year means an increase of 2 ppm/year, and both of those rates are going up. The rate for the first part of 2013, for example, was 2.74 ppm over the previous year. If we don’t stop, we could easily hit 450 ppm in about 20 years, and 500 ppm in 35 years — 2050, when a child born today will be … just 35 years old.

When the earth was cooling into its present chilly, semi-icy state, starting some 50 million years ago, it crossed a line for CO2 concentration in the air. That line occurred about 35 million years ago, when the first glaciers formed. We haven’t been glacier-free since. Above that line, no standing ice. Below it, varying degrees of ice.

The blue in the chart below shows when the ice sheets started forming (click here for a very large version).

One reconstruction for post-dinosaur era CO2 using a relatively low value for climate "sensitivity" (source)

One reconstruction for post-dinosaur era CO2 using a relatively low value for climate “sensitivity” (source)

Where was that line (“threshold”) for CO2 concentration below which glaciers started forming? It could be as low as 450 ppm (see chart above). Some climate processes are immediate, and some, like ice change, can be slower. I’ll be taking a look at that in future pieces. But keep in mind, there are tipping points; predictions have been wrong to the slow side; and no one wants to live in the chaos of a world in panic.

That’s the context in which I want to place Obama’s EPA announcement, and especially its cap-and-trade proposal.

When dealing with the carbon profiteers, do you ask them, encourage them, or force them to stop?

Looking at the three ways of eliminating emissions listed above — asking, encouraging, forcing — allows us to evaluate which ways are more likely to work. Does asking for fewer emissions work when it comes to Exxon, for example? I think not. I think they’ve been asked many times, and we have their answer. No.

Would encouraging work? That depends on what you mean by encouraging. Two proposals that use “encouragement” include a carbon tax — a direct tax on carbon emissions — and a “cap and trade” system that places an overall limit on the amount of allowed emissions in a given country, region, or state, and then issuing “permits to emit” that can be bought and traded.

The upside of a cap-and-trade system is that it’s “market based” and therefore easy to sell to the free-market types who set our agenda. The downside of a cap-and-trade system is that it’s market-based, and like all markets, easy to manipulate by the participants.

I took a look at a review of “cap and trade” systems around the world (also called “emissions trading schemes” or ETS). It’s not pretty:


Some European countries have a carbon tax where the government sets a price for each tonne of carbon dioxide emitted. Others have cap-and-trade systems where the governing body sets a gradually reducing limit on emissions covered by the scheme, and let the market set the price.

The European Union’s emissions trading scheme (ETS) is the world’s largest cap-and-trade scheme, covering about half the bloc’s carbon dioxide emissions. But the ETS has hit trouble in recent years.

The European Commission scrambled to boost the price after it plummeted to record lows in 2013. Its plan to temporarily remove 900 million permits – known as backloading – is only a temporary fix, however.

The commission has introduced a new proposal that would allow it to tinker with the number of permits, known as a strategic reserve. But experts remain unconvinced the reform would be able to save the market.

A number of domestic schemes have popped up to bolster the EU-ETS.

The UK introduced a carbon price floor in 2012 which put a minimum price on emissions. But the media blamed it and other green levies for high consumer bills, leading the UK Chancellor to curb the policy.

Sweden also has its own carbon tax. With a price of $168 per tonne of carbon dioxide, it has the highest carbon price in the world. A number of industries – such as those not covered by the EU ETS and agriculture – are partially exempt from the tax, however, limiting its effect.

France and Ireland also have limited taxes on the use of fossil fuels.

And that’s just Europe. What’s the takeaway? If a government is captured by its carbon industry and really doesn’t want to apply pressure, it adopts a “market-based” solution, then loosens the reins until the pressure to eliminate emissions is too weak to be meaningful.

Which leaves us with the last solution — if we’re going to get off carbon, we’ll have to use force. The most ideal form would be to have a government that wasn’t captured by carbon profiteers, and let them apply the pressure. A very strict carbon tax would work in that situation, but it would have to be strict enough to be painful for the emitters.

Unfortunately, until we have that government, we’ll have to apply that force ourselves. (Some ideas here.)

Will Obama use force to curb carbon emissions? Let’s see what his EPA rules require. But I’ll say it now — if you see “cap and trade” as the enforcement mechanism, you’re seeing a proposal with very few teeth.

Gigatons of carbon (GtC) versus gigatons of CO2 (GtCO2)

A note about units of measurement for “carbon emissions.” Two units of measurement are most commonly used, and they’re similar enough in sound and appearance that they cause some confusion. (There’s also a third, GtCO2-equivalent, but we can talk about it later; it’s less used than the others.)

In talking about carbon emissions, you can count just the carbon, or you can talk about the CO2 that contains the carbon. Scientists and writers do both, sometimes in the same piece of writing. It can get confusing unless you watch the unit of measurement carefully, since the numbers aren’t even close to each other. Scientists who deal with the coal industry, for example, will often talk in terms of emissions as GtC (weight of carbon). Those who deal with the effect of CO2 on global warming often use GtCO2 (weight of carbon dioxide). And many do both, depending on the source of their data.

So a heads up; it’s really the same thing from a different prospective. Carbon dioxide is the main form of carbon in the air — but a CO2 molecule weighs 3⅔ (3.667) times as much as a single carbon atom. If you’re putting, say, 10 tons of carbon into the air, you’re probably doing it by putting ~36 tons of CO2 up there, and so on.

My main point — if you want the emissions numbers to stick in your head, as I do, pay attention to the units or you’ll end up confused.

I’ll try to use GtC as much as possible, since “10 GtC emissions per year” is a very easy number to remember. And I’ll try to be careful to make you aware of which units I’m using when.


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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