June 14, 2008
China Top Carbon Dioxide Emitter

China might have become the top carbon dioxide emitter in 2006. But the CO2 emissions in China became so large in 2007 that there's no longer room for debate on which country emits the most CO2.

China has now clearly overtaken the United States as the world's leading emitter of climate-warming gases, a new study has found. The increasing emissions from China - up 8 percent in the past year - accounted for two-thirds of the growth in global greenhouse gas emissions in 2007, the study found.

The report, released Friday by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, is an annual study. Last year, for the first time, the researchers found that China had edged ahead of the United States as the world's leading emitter.

But the results were not so clear-cut as those released Friday, and many experts were skeptical of last year's finding.

Keep in mind that if China's emissions go up 8% again this year that will be a larger increase in absolute terms. Dito next year and the year after that and so on. As China gets bigger its percentage growth rates can stay the same or decline while still experiencing increasing absolute growth rates. I harp on this because China's growth is one of the biggest macro trends of the 21st century.

The Chinese aren't going to cut their carbon dioxide emissions until either they start running out of coal or newer energy sources fall so far in cost that they become cheaper than coal. The chances of running out of coal are higher than the conventional wisdom holds. But the Chinese still have a couple of decades of enormous coal burning in their future.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 June 14 12:07 AM  Pollution Trends


Comments
pond said at June 14, 2008 5:20 AM:

I see reports that the premium for making things in China and then shipping them to the US has jumped from 3% to 9% -- it should only go higher as higher oil prices work through the system. All the signs indicate that we have passed peak oil and are starting down the (steepening) far side.

Add to that the US recession, and China's CO2 will slide back a bit. They will still have their own massive economy to support, and all the Chinese who bought cars in the last year will want to drive them. But maybe we are seeing 'Peak CO2' about now.

Ray Kurzweil on Ira Plato's Science Friday show a few weeks back noted that we are only 7 doublings from getting all our power (electricity at least, I'm not sure he meant transportation and heating too) from solar energy.

Lake said at June 14, 2008 7:06 AM:

Maybe China will save us from the coming ice age. All that soot settling on northern snow and ice is certainly melting the glaciers. Can China burn enough dirty coal to save us from being drowned in ice? Keep watching.

Nick G said at June 14, 2008 11:05 AM:

Randall,

Peak coal depends on a continuation of current pricing trends between types of coal, and alternatives to coal - IOW, Business as Usual. People who think otherwise are misusing the data. I confirmed this directly with David Rutledge, and Heinberg acknowledges it in his TOD article. At slightly higher prices we have as much coal as we ever thought: more than enough to cook the planet.

We really need to ramp up cheap, low-CO2 alternatives, ASAP.

Randall Parker said at June 14, 2008 1:07 PM:

Nick G,

When energy prices go up so do the costs of extracting fossil fuels. It is not clear to me that higher coal prices will make a substantially larger fraction of the coal available for extraction. In fact, I do not expect higher prices to make that much of a difference in available coal reserves.

Some me a source that argues that, say, a doubling in coal prices will substantially increase recoverable coal reserves.

I think the Law of Receding Horizons is applicable here.

This is the same mistake that proponents of tar sands, GTL, oil shale, cellulosic ethanol, and many others have run into. They believe that oil prices will rise, and yet their costs will magically remain where they were. In fact, what happens is that as oil prices rise, all the costs associated with these various projects rise. Thatís why oil shale has been imminent for 100 years. Thatís why ExxonMobil is scrapping GTL plans. And thatís why tar sands costs have skyrocketed. A poster has referred to this trend as The Law of Receding Horizons.

You can find a post of mine a few years ago about the prospects of oil shale and Shell's efforts to make kerogen extraction from oil shale economically viable. Well, their projections for when they might succeed have slipped by years and their projections on costs have gone way up as well. I suspect the same sort of thing is happening with coal too. While more coal gets extracted from the ground each year as measured in tons the quality has declined so much that net energy content is lower now than 10 years ago. Yet coal prices are much higher.

Fly said at June 14, 2008 3:36 PM:

"Can China burn enough dirty coal to save us from being drowned in ice?"

Clouds reflect sunlight and thus reduce insolation. Clouds also act as heat blankets. Low level clouds are often warm and make good heat blankets that increase surface temperatures. High level clouds are cold and make poor heat blankets that contribute little to surface warming. Considering the net effect of sunlight reflection vs. heat blanket warming, low level clouds tend to increase surface warming while high level clouds tend to reduce surface warming. (The ideal cloud cover to cool the Earth would be high level daytime clouds at the equatorial regions with no clouds at night or at the polar regions.)

Particulates can directly reflect light and heat. Particulates also act as seeds for cloud formation. China's dirty method of burning coal produces particulates that are carried into the upper cloud levels. The net effect is less sunlight reaching the Earth's surface and global cooling similar to that caused by a volcanic eruption. If China switches to clean coal burning technologies, global warming should increase.

If China is going to burn coal, I hope they continue doing so in a dirty manner that moderates the greenhouse effect. Perhaps China should build very tall smokestacks to reduce surface pollution while increasing high level cloud formation. (Of course that might increase acid rain in other nations.)

Brett Bellmore said at June 15, 2008 4:53 AM:

Didn't China surpass us as a source of CO2 years ago, when you take into account all their coal mine fires?

cancer_man said at June 15, 2008 6:08 AM:

Randall,

You linked this with respect to The Law of Receding Horizons:

"Has anyone ever charted the cost trends in both industries? Say, in the past ten years. It could be very illuminating."

Well, it could be. Is there any concrete data on this at all? Kurzweil's Law of Acceleration is sometimes made fun of as "not a law" despite almost a century of data backing up the claim.

So until there is data backing the claim, shouldn't we call it The Hunch of Receding Horizons?

moth said at June 15, 2008 9:52 AM:

Idiocy of the day:

If China is going to burn coal, I hope they continue doing so in a dirty manner that moderates the greenhouse effect. Perhaps China should build very tall smokestacks to reduce surface pollution while increasing high level cloud formation.

Unless, unless, what the insect suggests is that opening the Northwest Passage with Chinese soot is a good idea? Yep, chinese soot is melting northern ice and snow more than much feared carbon di. You don't have to be an idiot to believe in global warming doom, but it helps!

Randall Parker said at June 15, 2008 12:10 PM:

cancer_man,

The Law of Receding Horizons seems pretty real to me. A few years ago Shell was saying that they could extra oil from shale for $30 per barrel. But like everything else the projected price is way up. Also, the date of first possible production has shifted out by years. Shell is now uncertain that their tech will prevent leakage of kerogen into the water table and they withdrew their application for testing on public lands owned by the federal government.

Kurzweil: All exponential trends end eventually. Some of his trends are going to knock up against physical limits and stop. The question is just where will they stop? I think we have orders of magnitude to go in terms of cost reductions on DNA sequencing and other biological manipulations. But we've knocked up against physical limits for oil extraction. One has to look at each case and ask where the trend will start to slow and when it will stop.

Allan said at June 15, 2008 12:57 PM:

Fly, your points are well taken and only highlights that sunlight and water vapor, in the form of clouds, are more important to the warming cycle than CO2.

Cal said at June 17, 2008 10:10 AM:

"You don't have to be an idiot to believe in global warming doom, but it helps!"

Correction: you don't have to be a blithering idiot to deny global warming, but it helps. Congrats on being the modern-day flat-Earthers.

Nick G said at June 19, 2008 10:21 AM:

"When energy prices go up so do the costs of extracting fossil fuels. "

As you note, it depends on the individual case. Coal has a high E-ROI. For instance from the Heinberg article ( from http://www.theoildrum.com/node/4061 ): "Consider the case of Massey Energy Company, the nationís fourth-largest coal company, which annually produces 40 million tons of coal using about 40 million gallons of diesel fuelóabout a gallon per ton"

Oddly, Heinberg doesn't seem to realize that's a very high E-ROI: a gallon of diesel is about 140K BTU's, and a ton of coal is very roughly 20M (see http://www.uwsp.edu/CNR/wcee/keep/Mod1/Whatis/energyresourcetables.htm ), so that's an E-ROI about 140:1! Now, diesel costs very roughly 10x as much per BTU (reflecting it's scarcity premium), so the cost ratio isn't quite as favorable, but it's still well above 10:1. So, the price of diesel rises by $1 (roughly 25%), and the cost of coal rises by $1, or very, very roughly 2% - not a big deal. Also, we should note that coal mining (and transportation) is often electric even now (esp underground), and that it's pretty amenable to further electrification - IOW, coal mining can power itself using a small fraction of it's production.

"It is not clear to me that higher coal prices will make a substantially larger fraction of the coal available for extraction. In fact, I do not expect higher prices to make that much of a difference in available coal reserves."

This reflects the confusion on the part of people on TOD. Look again at Heinberg's comment: "if Montana and Illinois can resolve their production blockages, or the nation becomes so desperate for energy supplies that environmental concerns are simply swept away, then the peak will come somewhat later, while the decline will be longer, slower, and probably far dirtier.". The Montana "production blockages" he talks about are relatively trivial, and Illinois doesn't really have them. The pollution he refers to is CO2 and sulfur - the sulfur costs about 2 cents/KWH to scrub, and the CO2 might cost out at $80/ton of CO2, which IIRC would add about $30/ton of coal, should we choose to internalize this cost.

You see, coal is unlike oil - we have enormous reserves, we know exactly where they are, and there is no increasing marginal cost to their extraction, except for temporary costs of expansion. Illinois coal simply couldn't compete with Powder River coal with a 2 cent premium for sulfur scrubbing - it's as simple as that. UK and German coal became a bit more expensive, and it couldn't compete with cheap oil.

"Some me a source that argues that, say, a doubling in coal prices will substantially increase recoverable coal reserves."

We don't need to double coal reserves - the ones we have are fine. Now, "recoverable" is tricky: the normal distinction used by the USGS is "economically recoverable" - that includes economic assumptions, and Illinois coal, at a slightly higher cost as discussed above, is currently uneconomic. But, that's under "BAU" - if we have a true energy scarcity, Illinois coal will very, very quickly become economic.

The "Law of Receding Horizons" applies only to low E-ROI sources of energy. Coal is high E-ROI, unlike Canadian bitumen (tar sands) or Colorado kerogen (oil shale). I would note that the importance of this "law" has been enormously exaggerated, as it's confused with temporary capex issues and scarcity premia, which are allocating temporarily scarce capital resources.

"While more coal gets extracted from the ground each year as measured in tons the quality has declined so much that net energy content is lower now than 10 years ago"

Powder River coal is lower energy density (sub-bituminous), but it's sufficiently cheaper to mine that the difference doesn't matter. Again, this is a purely economic shift from Illinois coal, which is higher energy density (bituminous). This shift has caused endless confusion to analysts unfamiliar with the coal industry (OTOH, anyone inside the industry understands this).

"coal prices are much higher."

This is due to the temporary costs of expansion. Oil & gas are much more expensive per BTU due to a scarcity premium, and so demand has increased for coal. Don't forget that most coal is on long-term contract, not on the higher spot market (unlike oil). But it's important to be clear that the marginal cost of extraction isn't increasing, as it is for oil.

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