By Matt Owens February 28, 2013
Climate change is getting more headline coverage lately. This is good. More people are starting to realize that action now will prevent large losses later. But real action hasn't happened yet, and we're still on a path to exceed worst-case projections. So here's something new to mull over: If Chinese emissions continue to follow in the footsteps of US historical emissions, China will emit as much as the entire world (all countries combined) emits today. Click for larger image.
In a graphic recently published here on Fairfax Climate Watch, Mark Fox showed that Chinese CO2 emissions are following the historic trend of US emissions extraordinarily closely - with a 100 year time lag. Specifically, China's emissions from 1950 to 2008 have risen just like the US emissions did between 1850 and 1908 (~ the American Gilded Age). But China's industry and population is much bigger today than the US 100 years ago; and Chinese industry feeds a global demand which is also much larger today than it was 100 years ago. In fact, global population now is 7 billion, and 100 years ago it was less than 2 billion.
So, I took the original graphs (posted again below) and simply overlapped them, drawing in an average trend for US observed emissions, thus creating a simple extrapolation that shows what Chinese emissions in 2100 if they continue to follow the pattern of US emissions (with the time lag persisting).
In making this new graphic, I realized US emissions haven't slowed as much as I thought. Or rather, they have slowed in recent years as shown in these graphs from the 2013 EPA draft report on US emissions:
...but on a 100 year time-scale, this slow-down is well within normal variability. If, in 10 to 20 years, US emissions are still at or below current 2008 levels, then the exponentially rising trend can be declared broken.
It is mildly encouraging to see the short-term slowing trend, But it's just too early to celebrate. And, if other countries are only just beginning to pollute the air with CO2, then US efforts alone will have little impact, other than giving us some moral credibility. If the American economy continues to struggle, policies that allow for cheaper, fossil fuel energy may come into being, boosting the economy and allowing a continued rise in CO2 pollution.
Below: both of the original graphics by Mark Fox (click for larger views).
Mark Fox's graphs originally appeared in two posts: Click here to read the accompanying article on "the US then, compared to China now" - and click here to read the second post on emissions with an excerpt from Jonathan Cowie, about biofuels replacing fossil fuels.