Carbon, America and the World

Climate Change

For a business to be Sustainable – that is, able to thrive in perpetuity [1] – requires that the world remain a viable place in which to thrive, in perpetuity. The world faces a number of substantial threats to its continuing viability to support a prosperous humanity. Climate Change is arguably the most discussed of these just now. Unfortunately, Climate Change is highly politicized and not generally well understood.

To clarify:

Climate Change refers to significant changes in the world’s climate that diminish the natural world’s ability to adequately support humanity and its civilizations.

Climate Change, in the sense intended here, refers to an increase in the global mean temperature.

Climate Change, then, is a set of negative effects caused by Global Warming.

Global Warming, again in the sense intended here, results from a “greenhouse effect” – a change in the composition of the earth’s atmosphere that results in retaining a greater portion of the energy from sunlight.

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a rapidly increasing “greenhouse gas” component of the earth’s atmosphere.

Energy generation from combustion of fossil fuels contributes most of the approximately 34 billion metric tons of CO2 that are currently being added to the earth’s atmosphere annually.

Most of the world’s nations, through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), have reached agreement on the necessity to reduce global CO2 emissions quickly and significantly.


The American Situation

At a meeting of the UNFCCC in December 2015, President Obama expressed an intention for the U.S. to reduce its greenhouse gas (essentially CO2) by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels, and to do so by 2025 (that is, 8 years from now).

This graph, from U.S. Department of Energy’s Annual Energy Outlook 2017, projects America’s energy related CO2 emissions to 2040 in a number of cases (sets of assumptions). As you can see, none of those cases provide substantial reductions in CO2 emissions, compared to present levels.

CO@ Emissions Projections

The Global Situation

Global CO2 EmissionsThe graph labeled Figure 9-1 [2] plots global CO2 emissions, broken out as emissions from OECD [3] countries (which include the USA) and non-OECD countries. Add the two together to get total global emissions (for 2016, approximately 13 billion metric tons from OECD countries + 21 million metric tons from non-OECD countries approximates 34 billion metric tons). Annual emissions from the OECD countries are projected to be approximately constant over the period through 2040. Annual emissions from the non-OECD countries are projected to increase substantially.[4]

Two points here: (1) Annual global CO2 emissions are projected to increase, not decrease. (2) Even if the USA could drive its CO2 emissions to zero, that reduction, of itself, would not prevent total annual CO2 emissions from continuing to increase, not decrease.

So, in order to contain Global Warming and it’s predicted negative effects (meaning Climate Change), annual global CO2 emissions need be reduced substantially, pronto. However, the Department of Energy’s figures, based on existing policies along with world demographic and economic projections, indicate that emissions will continue to rise, at least through 2040.

What to Do?

The USA can institute policies that directly affect its own emissions. It can only influence, not control, the emissions of other countries. Here are three possible approaches that the USA might choose to take. None of them can promise to radically reduce annual global CO2 emissions within the next decade or so.

Whatever it Takes: This approach posits that the USA forgets about costs and domestic economic growth, shuts down existing U.S. emissions sites on a crash schedule, and uses moral suasion, political pressure and an open checkbook to persuade other countries to follow suit.

Lead by Example: The approach starts by embracing, then building on President Obama’s expression of intention to reduce emissions. From there, the USA would lead by further reducing its emissions, while using diplomacy, economic incentives and coalition building to encourage others.

Pragmatics: The USA could continue to encourage the development and implementation of economically viable technologies, continue to research new emissions control and decarbonization approaches, and work with other nations to encourage them to do likewise on a mutually beneficial basis.

Considering present and your expectation of future political and economic realities in the USA and elsewhere, what do you think the USA should do? What approach should your business or organization take?

My House with Solar Panels

Google Map View of Chez Chuck, with Solar Panels

Thoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington (Chuck@JeraSustainableDevelopment.com)

This blog and associated website (www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com) are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome.


[1] Adam Werbach, Strategy for Sustainability, Harvard Business Press (2009), page 9

[2] The graph labeled Figure 9-1 is from the U.S. Department of Energy’s International Energy Outlook 2016 (IEO 2016). The Annual Energy Outlook and the International Energy Outlook are available fro free download at www.eia.gov

[3] OECD, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, is a group of 34 relatively developed countries. The USA is a member.

[4] The non-OECD countries are growing significantly faster than the OECD countries, both demographically and economically. People in less economically developed countries understandably want to catch up with those in OECD countries on a GDP per capita GDP basis.