Record carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere were reported worldwide in March, in what scientists said marked a significant milestone for global warming.
Figures released by the US science agency Noaa on Wednesday show that for the first time since records began, the parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere were over 400 globally for a month.
The measure is the key indicator of the amount of planet-warming gases man is putting into the atmosphere at record rates, and the current concentrations are unprecedented in millions of years.
The new global record follows the breaking of the 400ppm CO2 threshold in some local areas in 2012 and 2013, and comes nearly three decades after what is considered the ‘safe’ level of 350ppm was passed.
“Reaching 400ppm as a global average is a significant milestone,” said Pieter Tans, lead scientist on Noaa’s greenhouse gas network.
“This marks the fact that humans burning fossil fuels have caused global carbon dioxide concentrations to rise more than 120ppm since pre-industrial times,” added Tans. “Half of that rise has occurred since 1980.”
World leaders are due to meet in Paris for a UN climate summit later this year in an attempt to reach agreement on cutting countries’ carbon emissions to avoid dangerous global warming.
Dr Ed Hawkins, a climate scientist at the University of Reading told the Guardian: “This event is a milestone on a road to unprecedented climate change for the human race. The last time the Earth had this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was more than a million years ago, when modern humans hadn’t even evolved yet.
“Reaching 400ppm doesn’t mean much in itself, but the steady increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases should serve as a stark reminder of the task facing politicians as they sit down in Paris later this year.”
Greenhouse gas emissions from power plants stalled for the first time last year without the influence of a strict economic recession, according to the International Energy Agency, an influential thinktank.
Nick Nuttall, a spokesman for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which oversees the international climate negotiations, said: “These numbers underline the urgency of nations delivering a decisive new universal agreement in Paris in December – one that marks a serious and significant departure from the past.
“The agreement and the decisions surrounding it needs to be a long term development plan providing the policies, pathways and finance for triggering a peaking of global emissions in 10 years’ time followed by a deep, decarbonisation of the global economy by the second half of the century.”
But even if manmade emissions were dramatically cut much deeper than most countries are planning, the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere would only stabilise, not fall, scientists said.
James Butler, director of Noaa’s global monitoring division, said: “Elimination of about 80% of fossil fuel emissions would essentially stop the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but concentrations of carbon dioxide would not start decreasing until even further reductions are made and then it would only do so slowly.”
Concentrations of CO2 were at 400.83ppm in March compared to 398.10ppm in March 2014, the preliminary Noaa data showed. They are are expected to stay above 400pm during May, when levels peak because of CO2 being taken up by plants growing in the northern hemisphere.
Noaa used air samples taken from 40 sites worldwide, and analysed them at its centre in Boulder, Colorado. The agency added that the average growth rate in concentrations was 2.25ppm per year from 2012-2014, the highest ever recorded for three consecutive years. More
Perhaps you’ve seen one of the recent barrage of articles claiming that fears of an imminent peak and decline in world oil production have either been dispelled (because we actually have plenty of oil) or are misplaced (because climate change is the only environmental problem we should be concerned with). I’m not buying either argument.
Why? Let’s start with the common assertion that oil supplies are sufficiently abundant so that a peak in production is many years or decades away. Everyone agrees that planet Earth still holds plenty of petroleum or petroleum-like resources: that’s the kernel of truth at the heart of most attempted peak-oil debunkery. However, extracting and delivering those resources at an affordable price is becoming a bigger challenge year by year. For the oil industry, costs of production have rocketed; they’re currently soaring at a rate of about 10 percent annually. Producers need very high oil prices to justify going after the resources that remain—tight oil from source rocks, Arctic oil, ultra-deepwater oil, and bitumen. But oil prices have already risen to the point where many users of petroleum just can’t afford to pay more. The US economyhas a habit of responding to oil price hikes by swooning into recession, and during the shift from $20 per barrel oil to $100 per barrel oil (which occurred between 2002 and 2011), the economies of most industrialized countries began to shudder and stall. What would be their response to a sustained oil price of $150 or $200? We may never know: it remains to be seen whether the world can afford to pay what will be required for oil producers to continue wresting liquid hydrocarbons from the ground at current rates. While industry apologists who choose to focus only on the abundance of remaining petroleum resources claim that peak oil is rubbish, the market is telling Houston we have a problem.
Meanwhile some environmentalists have abandoned the subject of peak oil because they believe it’s just not relevant. For them, climate change is the only thing that matters. Society must deal with its collective carbon habit by going cold turkey on all fossil fuels. We can make the needed energy transition through the strategies of substitution and efficiency. Develop low-carbon energy sources (solar and wind, possibly nuclear), and use energy smarter! Electrify transport with battery-powered cars! Get with the program and stop wasting time on side issues!
Like the abundant-resource argument, this line of thinking proceeds from an unassailable premise. Anthropogenic climate change is indeed the nastiest, gnarliest environmental issue humanity has ever faced. The potential consequences stretch centuries or millennia into the future and imperil not just humanity, but thousands or millions of other species. But peak oil won’t go away just because it’s an inconvenient distraction from addressing that gargantuan issue. In fact, the two problems are closely linked and society will need to address both by way of a realistic, comprehensive strategy. I’ll get back to that point toward the end of this essay.
Is the necessary transition to renewable energy a simple matter of politics and regulation, as many climate campaigners seem to suggest? Hardly. Transitioning the electricity sector is a huge task in itself (the variability of wind and solar power implies soaring costs for energy storage, capacity redundancy, and grid upgrades once these sources start to provide a substantial portion of total electrical energy consumed). But liquid fuels pose an even bigger hurdle. Even the most advanced batteries do a poor job of storing energy when compared to oil; that’s why we’re unlikely ever to see electric airplanes, tractors, ships, 18-wheel trucks, or bulldozers. Some energy pundits tout compressed natural gas as a viable bridge fuel for transport, but that assumes sufficient availability and continued affordability of fracked shale gas—a prospect that seems highly unlikely in view of the results of Post Carbon Institute’s ongoing research into possible shale gas drilling locations and per-well production profiles. Hydrogen could be a niche fuel in some instances, but conversion from other energy sources (electricity or natural gas) to hydrogen implies energy losses, as does hydrogen storage. Further, if we were to make lots of H2 from water, using electricity, in order to fuel much of the transport sector, this would place an enormous extra burden on solar and wind, which already face a daunting job replacing coal and natural gas in the power generation sector.
How about energy efficiency? Good idea! We need to cut energy waste, and the folks at Rocky Mountain Institute have proposed many good ways of doing that. But, at the end of the day, efficiency is subject to the law of diminishing returns; so, while the tie between energy consumption and economic output is somewhat elastic, it cannot be severed. Specifically regarding oil: yes, many nations have reduced petroleum consumption in the last few years as a way of adapting to higher prices. But the fact that their economies have weakened suggests that efficiency gains have tended to lag behind oil price increases. Average vehicle fuel economy has improved, but not fast enough—so our main “efficiency” strategy has in reality simply been to travel less, and then deal with the withdrawal of economic benefits that cheap transport formerly provided.
None of this is trivial: oil is essential to the functioning of the modern industrial world. We use it for just about all transportation, which is key to trade. It’s also the fuel for construction, resource extraction (mining, fishing, forestry), and agriculture. Together, these sectors form the backbone of the real, physical economy of industrialized nations.
Again: the costs of oil production are rising and oil is stubbornly hard to substitute. As I argued in a recent book, this effectively spells the end of the historic period of rapid economic growth that began shortly after World War II. There is no way out; inevitably, society will become less mobile and—this should be cause for much greater concern—it will either produce less food or produce it in more labor-intensive ways.
Of course, peak oil and climate change aren’t the only looming challenges we should be concerned about. Economists rightly worry that the world is mired in far too much debt. Ecologists warn us about biodiversity loss, pervasive chemical pollution, and human overpopulation. Food system analysts try (usually in vain) to direct public attention toward the predicaments of topsoil degradation and depletion of aquifers from over-irrigation. Public health professionals caution us about the specter of pandemics as antibiotics lose effectiveness due to rapid microbial evolution. For city managers, the crumbling of water, sewerage, bridge, gas, and electricity grid infrastructure implies countless disasters just waiting to happen. I could go on. It’s all so overwhelming! Perhaps the only way to avoid crisis fatigue these days is simply to stop paying attention. But amid all these priorities and problems, peak oil refuses to die.
Those of us who insist on paying attention sooner or later get around to doing a form of mental triage. What are the worst crises that humanity faces over the long run? Which are the worst in the short term? What are the deeper issues, of which many problems are mere symptoms? This sorting process has led many systems thinkers to the conclusion that our species, in essence, faces an ecological dilemma of overpopulation, resource depletion, and environmental degradation resulting from a relatively brief period of rapid expansion enabled by a huge but temporary energy subsidy in the form of fossil fuels. We discovered buried treasure and went on a spending binge, adopting a way of life that cannot be supported long-term. Peak oil, climate change, mineral depletion, soil degradation, species loss, and the rest are justwords that blind men use to describe an elephant.
What we must do now is treat symptoms while keeping in mind the root disease, seeing why and how various crises are related. I have a couple of suggestions in this regard. One is that we begin to speak of peak oil and climate change as two sides of the same coin. The coin itself represents our reliance on fossil fuels and their unique energetic benefits. Both side-problems (the declining economic value of fossil fuels as they deplete, on one side, and the increasing environmental cost of burning them, on the other) demand that we reduce our fossil fuel dependency as rapidly as possible, even though that means sacrificing benefits we have come to depend on. If we maintain this holistic view of the situation, we’re more likely to understand that there is no way to keep eating our cake while having it too, either by continuing to burn fossil fuels of declining quality or by relying on new technology to fix what is actually an ecological problem. We can’t frack our way back to economic prosperity; nor can we unplug a coal plant, plug in a solar panel, and go on expanding population and consumption. We will have to adapt to the quantities and qualities of energy that are actually available from renewable sources alone, and that will mean changing the way we do just about everything.
Which brings me to the second, related suggestion. The constellation of challenges before us ensures that economic growth, as we have known it, is over, finished, kaput. That’s a terrible thing, in that the end of growth will almost certainly entail financial and political turbulence with real human casualties. But from the standpoint of diagnosis and treatment, it simplifies everything marvelously. If our impending crises stem from fossil-fueled expansion of population and consumption, their resolution surely starts with a coordinated, planned, and managed program of decarbonization and degrowth. We must reduce population and energy consumption from fossil fuels, while minimizing the human and environmental impacts of both past growth and the process of contraction. Easily said, not so easily done. But if civilization is to maintain itself in any recognizable form, this is what’s necessary. It would really help if those of us working at treating the various symptoms of the global meta-crisistogether acknowledged that growth is a core part of the underlying problem, not a solution, and that it is effectively over in any case.
Ignore peak oil (this could equally be said of climate change), and our view of the global problem-set immediately becomes distorted. We grasp at apparent solutions that turn out to be a useless waste of effort, or worse. Peak oil helps us understand what we’re faced with, and what we must do. It’s a gift wrapped in a curse. And it refuses to go away no matter how often it is pronounced dead.
By. Richard Heinberg
If there’s a symbol of the environmental destructiveness of our consumer culture, it’s plastic, made from carbon-spewing petroleum products. But what if bags, bottles, and other plastics could help save the environment, not destroy it? What if your laptop computer, smartphone case, and office furniture, rather than emitting planet-warming greenhouse gases, stored them instead?
They will soon.
A Southern California company called Newlight Technologies has developed a way to make plastic from carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It’s called AirCarbon, and this fall, Dell Latitude laptops manufactured near El Paso, Tex., will be shipped in a Newlight AirCarbon plastic bag made from greenhouse gases that would otherwise be heating the planet. Virgin Mobile, meanwhile, has struck a deal to sell AirCarbon phone cases through Sprint, and furniture maker KI will start using AirCarbon plastic in its products.
“This has the potential not to just change our industry but the world at large,” says Dick Resch, chief executive of Green Bay, Wis.–based KI. “We’re taking pollutants out of the air and turning them into plastics that can be recycled. It’s pretty amazing on several fronts.”
Oliver Campbell, Dell’s head of worldwide procurement for packaging, said that testing by independent laboratories not only verified that AirCarbon plastic is carbon negative but that it is significantly cheaper than petroleum-based plastic.
“This is a big paradigm shift,” says Campbell. “With technology like AirCarbon, we’re starting to leave the planet in better shape than we found it.”
AirCarbon also helps solve a climate change conundrum: how to contain greenhouse gas emissions while promoting economic growth, particularly in poor, fossil fuel–dependent developing countries.
The creators of this fantastic plastic are a pair of Orange County high school buddies named Mark Herrema and Kenton Kimmel.
As Herrema prepared to graduate from Princeton University 11 years ago, he had a revelation that could have come straight out of a 21st-century version of the famous scene in The Graduate. (An executive corners a newly graduated Dustin Hoffman at a Los Angeles cocktail party in 1967 and offers a bit of advice: “I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.”)
In this case, Herrema was reading a Los Angeles Times story about efforts to contain emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from dairy cows. A lightbulb went off. Plastics.
“I thought, Why are we just emitting all the carbon in the air or taxing it or putting it in the ground when most of the materials we are making today are made from carbon,” Herrema, Newlight’s chief executive, recalls at the company’s Costa Mesa, Calif., headquarters, which are next to an auto repair shop. “Why not use this as a resource to make plastic?”
It was not a new idea. But past efforts foundered on a fundamental problem: cost. It took one pound of a pricey catalyst to create one pound of really expensive plastic. Herrema and Kimmel, Newlight’s chief technology officer, ran into the same roadblock.
“I spent my entire 20s in this building trying to make this work,” says Herrema, 32, a self-described “science nerd” who looks more like the Southern California surfer that he is. “Eventually we had a breakthrough, and the breakthrough was a new kind of catalyst that wouldn’t turn itself off at this one-to-one ratio.”
That was in 2010. Newlight’s new catalyst initially produced plastic at a three-to-one ratio. But the plastic wasn’t exactly ready for prime time. Herrema and Kimmel made their first chair for KI’s Resch, an early investor in Newlight. The executive picked up the chair and snapped it in half with his hand. Today Newlight is producing 10 pounds of plastic for every pound of catalyst, and all the chairs in the company’s offices were made by KI from AirCarbon.
At the company’s research lab, methane gas—yes, from cows like those Herrema read about in the newspaper—is mixed with air in a steel tank. Newlight’s patented biocatalyst then strips out the carbon from the methane and chains the molecules together to form different grades of plastic resin. At the end of the production line, the resin is chopped into pellets. Newlight sells the pellets to manufacturers to be molded into products. The company operates a plant in California and is building another one in the Midwest that will produce 50 million pounds of plastic annually. The company will obtain greenhouse gases from landfills or farms.
In one corner of the lab, scientists are experimenting with creating an AirCarbon replacement for plastic water bottles and foam packaging, those other ubiquitous scourges of modern life. More