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

  1. pvequalkt says:

    The D stench is identical to the R stench… except the Ds wear a x-mas tree (they’re not part of the war on x-mas… yet) air freshener around their neck.
    Eliminate the fake pine, and the stench is the same. No better.
    Sadly, your rationalization writ large is why we will NEVER see anything improve. So long as you can hold your nose and still vote D, the status quo is ensured.
    You want shit fixed? You got to vote some other way.

  2. 4th Turning says:

    Same exact conditions as “Sandy”-massive storm and high tide. How many drowned
    never firing a shot, Yet Eisenhower went ahead with the “carefully” planned invasion.
    There are sometimes no good choices-only choices. I think there is less rancid
    odors wafting from “Ds” so will stick.

  3. pvequalkt says:

    Ds… or the political left… such as it is… isn’t so much anti science as it is fervently pro-money. Wherever they get their billions per cycle to buy ads and such, they are fully devoted.
    If you look at every single Mccain plank in his run in 2008, you’ll see what audacity hopey changey and the party has DONE. Start with “drill baby drill” and go from there to coal to fracking and, soon, to keystone.
    romneycare, taken from rightwing think tanks, became obamneycare, the seminal “lefty” lege of the 8th and 9th Reagan admins.
    Rs deny science because their base is populated by religious douchenozzles and other assorted imbeciles.
    Ds don’t deny science, quite, .. but they also don’t swim upstream against the flow of money.
    And there ain’t much money coming from science… so there you go.

  4. americanhispanicsdf says:

    as Julie replied I
    can’t believe that any one can profit $8334 in a few weeks on the internet .
    go right here

    ☂ヽ(•‿•)ノ❤ ♬ ✩ ☁>>>>

  5. eggroll_jr says:

    Right now we have the ability to monitor every major coal-fired power plant and every major steel smelter on the planet. China specifically is trying to shut down the oldest of these, which in some cases are just 1/8th the efficiency of their modern counterpart. We have only one atmosphere and technically only one ocean, so behavior of mankind a group is what matters. I think the 10GtC is a fantastic, succinct way to get people focused on a number. Why not extend that slightly to a 10tC rule for people. Anybody, anywhere consuming over 10tC a year needs to consider lifestyle changes and possibly consider purchasing personal carbon offsets. For example, a roundtrip flight from LA to Europe is about 2 tons of carbon, so if you fly a lot, you really don’t have much left for other carbon-intense inputs like filet mignon or Alaska salmon. This would also be fair to the bottom half of humanity that comes nowhere close to such carbon intensity, or countries like Denmark that have made great strides in smart low-carbon energy solutions.

  6. 4th Turning says:

    Am going for a real ‘fair and balanced’-Politico has a decent rep. The article
    was a good thought piece “in my opinion”. Perspective has always served me
    well. Got polled on the ph. just yesterday. Am sure my 10’s skewed the whole
    survey-okay, so much for fair and balanced.

  7. BloggerDave says:

    …the anti-science views that are actually thriving among [democrats’} ranks.

    What exactly are these anti-science views?

  8. Indigo says:

    I can’t say I’ve noticed any crumbs lately . . .

  9. 4th Turning says:

    We 47/98% will always have the Putt-Putt crumbs they toss us…

  10. Indigo says:

    It is.The cost is factored into country club fees and homeowner organizations.The upper-middle dumps an astonishing amount of cash (well, it’s probably credit) into maintaining those faux-northern lawns. Florida State Agricultural Department policy is xeriscaping (using local plants) but developers ignore that because there’s no legal enforcement, it’s just a recommendation.

  11. 4th Turning says:

    Point taken???

    “The few times writers have attempted to point out the left’s problems with science, they have gotten shot down for “false equivalence”—for holding up both parties as equally anti-science so as not to seem biased when one of those parties is in reality more anti-science than the other.
    But such cries of false equivalence miss the point. The issue isn’t whether the Democrats are anti-science enough to match the anti-science lunacy of Republicans. The point is that any science denialism exists on the left at all. If there is grime in my bathroom and grime in my kitchen, I don’t stand there and contemplate which one has more filth; my house won’t be clean until I have scoured both.
    The fact is, there’s plenty of anti-science grime on the left that needs to be cleaned up. To understand why we don’t hear about it, consider the different styles of the parties, which illustrate why denial percolates differently through each. The more centralized, top-down Republicans regularly push for unity, and their platform, on issues ranging from abortion to taxation, is clearly recognizable. Even if there’s not a plank specifically about climate change in the Republican platform, it speaks for itself that whenever a Republican bucks the party trend to say climate change is man-caused, he makes news.”

    Read more: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/democrats-have-a-problem-with-science-too-107270.html#ixzz33aeUFK1a

  12. 4th Turning says:

    More on the epidemic of stupid?

    “People don’t take hurricanes as seriously if they have a feminine name and the consequences are deadly, finds a new groundbreaking study.
    Female-named storms have historically killed more because people neither consider them as risky nor take the same precautions, the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes.
    Researchers at the University of Illinois and Arizona State University examined six decades of hurricane death rates according to gender, spanning 1950 and 2012. Of the 47 most damaging hurricanes, the female-named hurricanes produced an average of 45 deaths compared to 23 deaths in male-named storms, or almost double the number of fatalities. (The study excluded Katrina and Audrey, outlier storms that would skew the model).”


  13. 4th Turning says:

    Must be murder on all those endless manicured lawns and golf courses…

  14. Monte Logan says:

    If you were dealing with rational and thinking people whom had actually gave a damn about other people’s lives or what they could be losing, we could have chosen options 1 and 2 two decades ago and had been done with it. But noooooooooo. That’s not who he have sailing this ship now is it? right now we have the entire Bass ackwards thinking department, backed by the chimpanzee’s retard cousin and people who would sell their own children to a pedophile if they could make a quick buck out of it behind the crucial parts of the ship. And we’ve sailed completely off course with water leaking through, supplies running low, and a captain who refuses to fix it, there making this the next titanic.

    Normally I would be nice about it, but the time for that is over with. go with option 3. wake the people up or call in reinforcements from a couple of overseas frenemies and force our government to do the right thing

  15. Monte Logan says:

    You gotta love how some of Europe’s countries have made the issues that we still “debate” over look as complicated as what you would decide to eat for break fast in the morning. now if only we could make our country do the same thing.

  16. Indigo says:

    It is funny, isn’t it? Costal cities like Miami and Ft. Lauderdale and even Merritt Island (space coast) are already dealing with flooded streets during ordinary rains. In some places, the drainage system backs up and the salt water flows right in during high tide. New Venice is under development but not yet consciously so.

  17. Monte Logan says:

    and the only way of stopping them is to get the overwhelming majority of voters to vote them out and be done with this farce

  18. 4th Turning says:

    You go, girl!
    I can’t seem to get enough of cars “plowing” through standing water obviously (and obliviously) above their wheels and into the engine. The perfect marriage of arrogance and stupidity.

  19. 4th Turning says:

    Not sure why it’s not readily available for sharing but Neil did an admirable job of breaking it all down
    on Cosmos season 1 episode 12 “The World Set Free” last night.

    “And yet even a 98% consensus among climate scientists that this is real and that it’s man-made isn’t sufficient to lay the pseudo-“controversy” to rest.
    Why? Chances are, how you respond to this episode will dovetail neatly with how you self-identify on the political spectrum. Several studies have shown a pronounced “backfire effect” in response to countering unfounded political opinions with factual evidence to the contrary. Rather than adjusting their opinions to be more factually correct, many people double down on their preexisting beliefs. They will not be swayed by facts, finding all manner of rationalizations to ignore the overwhelming evidence.
    Here’s the thing: Nature doesn’t care about your politics, or what you want to be true. It just does its thing according to the well-established rules described by science. We ignore reality at our peril.”


    An intriguing bit of history from the program.

    “We’ve been at the solar crossroads before. At the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1878,Augustin Mouchot demonstrated a solar-power engine capable of making ice by converting the sun’s rays into mechanical steam power. He won a gold medal and everything. But this coincided with cheap coal — so cheap his solar device couldn’t compete economically. He ultimately lost his funding.

    We were at a crossroads again in 1913, when the American inventor Frank Shuman built a solar array to power steam engines in Egypt, with an eye toward using it to irrigate the desert. But the market for cheap petroleum exploded, and the outbreak of World War I led to his solar arrays being recycled into weapons. His invention didn’t go anywhere, either.”

  20. Naja pallida says:

    They always cite the cost as the reason why we shouldn’t be moving away from carbon so fast, but the only solution they offer is to essentially increase the cost exponentially by creating stop-gap half-measures that won’t actually help the overall problem. What they actually mean when they complain about the cost of alternative energy, is that they believe there is still profit to be made off of people’s ignorance and apathy.

  21. JaneE says:

    We have already tried options one and two, and they didn’t do diddly.

    Some people don’t need laws and regulations, because they will try to do the right things just because. Others need a real incentive to act in the best interests of society as a whole.
    Still others need to be forced, or punished, or just effectively constrained, in order for society as a whole to benefit.

    At a minimum, carbon based fuels should be taxed enough to mitigate the damage they cause. The same should be true for all energy sources. That should be more than enough incentive for efficient usage by the vast majority of people. There are not enough people who can afford to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on one fill-up for their SUVs.

    Back in the real world, we can’t even get gasoline taxes high enough to maintain our roadways in drivable condition.

  22. Ford Prefect says:

    The mere fact the lamestream press can pretend Obama’s half-baked half-measures will have any real effect on climate change is perhaps the cruelest joke of them all. Over at HuffPo, NRDC is pretending this is a watershed moment, even though they bloody well know better. It’s interesting that trying to avoid a mass extinction event comes in a distant 12th to propping up a craven, failed presidency.

    How does it go again? Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the crass? Or the terrible?

    I forget how it goes.

  23. Ford Prefect says:

    20 years ago, “cleaner alternative” would have been more meaningful. But now that we’ve pushed over 400 ppm, it’s moot. Anything that adds to the problem adds to the problem, even though it adds less. Perhaps Philip Seymour Hoffman would still be alive if he only overdosed by half as much?

    We won’t save the human race with empty half-measures at this point.

  24. emjayay says:

    It is cleaner (like not putting mercury and particulates in the air) and puts out less carbon, as far as I know. Substituting it for coal in power plants is a big plus, if the emissions connected with the extraction are tightly controlled, which of course takes regulation and enforcement.

    Meanwhile, like I’ve said before using long boring examples, spending a lot on the conservation side at the same time makes a lot of sense.

    All of this is you know Socialism I guess.

  25. emjayay says:

    Meanwhile, get a Nissan Leaf and sign up for renewable electricity if you can.

  26. GarySFBCN says:


  27. lynchie says:

    This is like recycling of bottles, plastic, newspaper, cardboard, etc. People don’t want to take the time to take it to the center if there is one. Here in Western Pa. we have no mandatory recycling and it took my wife 5 years to convince the local VFD to consider it as a way to make money, but the number of people who drop off material is sadly lacking they would rather put in the landfill with their trash. We continue to pollute with cars, trucks, etc. because the price of fuel is so low compared to other countries. Their is no real push for high mileage cars, no high speed rail, no options but to have one person per car every day going off to work. We became a suburban population when we bought into home ownership, big house, bigger property in the burbs and now we can’t move back because no one wants to live here now and can’t sell our houses. Hopefully when there is enough pain (high fuel prices) we may all get involved.

  28. Bill_Perdue says:

    Your response is non-responsive.

    I talked about pollution promotion as a whole and the role of right wing parties in promoting it, global warming and climate change. And as others have pointed out, even your non-response was wrong.

  29. Reasor says:

    If the EPA ever threatened to make itself useful, the Republican legislature would defund the agency into oblivion the next day.

  30. GeorgeMokray says:

    We should be moving towards zero emissions, not just for carbon but for everything. Using zero emissions as an approachable goal we can work towards is an extremely useful tool which will show us many ways to reduce our ecological footprint, even if only we do it as a thought experiment.

    Another useful thought experiment is to imagine our society as 100% renewably powered. Denmark has been pursuing this idea in reality since the late 1970s and is moving inexorably in that direction. They plan to be 100% renewable by 2050, if not before, and get about a third of their electricity from renewables, primarily wind, now.

  31. GaiusPublius says:

    The problems with methane:

    “Cleaner” has a tricky definition. Intuitively it applies to pollution, not carbon emission. Burning methane releases far fewer sulfur products, for example, than coal. In that sense it’s “cleaner.”

    But the issue is carbon “pollution.” It’s true that burning methane produces more watts of power per unit of carbon emitted than coal. But only if leakage of the raw methane is kept below a level that the industry asserts, but cannot document or demonstrate.

    And as Ford Prefect points out, emitting hydrocarbons is emitting hydrocarbons. The only way to stop is to stop. Why build up a large methane-burning infrastructure, just to tear it down in favor of solar and wind? Just build the solar and wind and take everything else offline.

    I didn’t say it outright in the piece, but there’s a kind of money-coddling corruption all through these policies.


  32. Indigo says:


    That will bring war but that’s okay because after the war, which will be horribly devastating, there will be genuine scarcity and with genuine scarcity might come sobriety. It is ultimately a moral issue, this CO2 intoxication. We have greed-mongers intoxicated with the accumulation of wealth based on fossil fuels. Like shouting at a drunk, the message of sobriety and responsible behavior does not get through until they’ve hit bottom. We’re not there yet and I don’t think we need to wait until they sober up or hit bottom.

    We should go ahead, force the issue through legislation and see how it goes. Here in Florida, now that the rainy season (hurricane season to adrenaline junkies) is upon us, it’s time to trim trees and gather supplies for a 6-10 day power outage, just in case. You do that before the hurricane hits. Ditto war, now’s the time to secure the necessities. Regardless, if we force the issue, the addicts will come out shooting.

  33. GarySFBCN says:

    I stand corrected. I should have written that so far, the natural gas appears to be a “cleaner” alternative to coal.

  34. Ford Prefect says:

    How does pumping hydrocarbons out of the ground and then burning them in engines NOT raise carbon emissions? The only way hydrocarbons can avoid raising emissions is if we leave them in the ground. Natural raises emissions somewhat more slowly than oil or coal. But it still raises them.

  35. GarySFBCN says:

    While I am 100% against fracking, it is no way raises carbon emissions. No, it probably leads to reduced carbon emissions.

  36. GarySFBCN says:

    Gerry Brown’s press release. . .today!

    “West Coast Leaders Applaud Obama Administration Proposal to Cut Carbon Pollution

    California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia Urge Strong Federal Action to Combat Global Warming”


  37. UncleBucky says:

    Force. Imprison. Defund. Cut off their… ugh.

  38. heimaey says:

    Force. Although I’m pretty sure it’s too late anyway.

  39. Rambie says:

    That’s to logical to work here in the ‘States.

  40. Bill_Perdue says:

    The cowards at the WH won’t force energy companies, or any businesses for that matter, to stop polluting and stop murdering their employees in explosions and mining disasters.

    Instead the Obama WH is pushing offshore drilling, a major expansion of environment killing fracking operations and has laid the groundwork for okaying the Keystone pipeline. Democrats and Republicans, because they’re owned by the looters, are promoting environmental disaster.

    A reasonable solution would be a massive, multitrillion dollar effort to green transport and energy production and the economy as a whole, and to take steps to limit the use of automobile and trucks fueled by gas and to change the infrastructure to make alternate forms of transport, including mass transport, more viable.

    That effort, if hiring went through union hiring halls, would also end unemployment and produce a huge amount of money to fuel the economy out of Bill Clintons depression.

    Democrats and Republicans will never consider taking such reasonable steps. They’r unreasonable parties. They promote governmental degradation.

  41. lynchie says:

    Well I am pretty cynical so I guess i will be surprised if he really decides to get tough.
    As far as the XL pipeline the future does not look good.

    “From the start of welding, TransCanada experienced a high
    weld rejection rate,” one of the letters said, specifying
    that over 72 percent of welds required repairs during one week.
    Another letter spoke of dents in pipelines and also damaged
    coatings, which resulted in the pipeline being excavated in 98
    places to make repairs.


    My guess is it is all one of his great speeches lots of sound bites but no substance. I am so tired of this government from top to bottom doing nothing about anything. Posturing, hating the black man and no one in Congress doing a thing for the good of all just special interests and the 1%

  42. Elijah Shalis says:

    Well encouraging a change with subsidies and tax breaks worked in Europe. That is the preferred method.

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