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Global warming and carbon emissions

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Global warming and carbon emissions

I have several questions regarding the relationship between the degree of global warming and the volume of carbon emissions, assuming such a relationship exists.

The dependent variable in this relationship must be the deviations of some measure of global temperatures from either a constant value for global temperatures, or estimates of what these temperatures might have been if humans did not exist. If the deviations are from some constant value, the first question is what determines this value? Is it some very long, equilibrium value, whatever that might be? In turn, is there a critical deviation that either results in irreversible climate damage, or results in rapidly escalating damage? Where are we now relative to this critical value, and how much time do we we realistically have?

Logically however, the deviations should be from a non-constant, very long-term path. Otherwise, any empirical tests might be mixing long-term trends totally unrelated to carbon emissions with the potential impacts of such emissions. In this case, is there a critical temperature, not just a deviation? Further, which direction is the path going? If it is on an upward trend, then we might be quickly approaching the critical juncture of no return. If the path is on a downward trend, then there might not be a problem for many decades or even centuries, and we might have much more time to find technological solutions. The problem would not be pressing, and Copenhagen is a waste of time.

Now I turn my attention to the measurement of carbon emissions in this empirical analysis. Is the independent variable the cumulative quantity of carbon emissions from the beginning of time? If so, any efforts to further reduce these emissions are simply buying time to find technological breakthroughs. For unless we actually eliminate all future emissions starting today, a totally implausible scenario, global temperatures, or at least the deviations can move in only one direction – up. In this case, why waste resources and time on policies to reduce the volume of emissions, when the only feasible, long-term solution or hope, is to find the technological solutions to reverse the damage. Why not focus entirely on finding the technology silver bullets, assuming they even exist?

However, it is more reasonable to assume that the carbon emissions variable should be some weighted total over a finite period of time, say 20 years. In this case, what are the weights, especially for emissions towards the beginning of the time period, and what is the length of the time period?

Moreover, should the variable be the deviations of the quantum of emissions over a period of time from some fixed amount? In this case, it might be possible to reverse some of the climate damage. Well, what is the independent variable?

Why are these questions regarding the aggregate volume of carbon emissions important? Because their answers can provide us with a better understanding of the time frame we have for reducing carbon emissions. If global emissions are reduced to 1990 levels within a 20-year time frame or less, will temperatures still rise? And if so, how close will we get to the critical threshold? Do we need to be more aggressive in our targets? Or do we have plenty of time, and can we accept less aggressive targets? Or, at the end of the day, will aggressive targets just buy us some more time to find the technological solutions because we cannot avoid passing through the critical temperature threshold? Thus, I am back to the question posed above; namely, why not just focus on technology?

Regarding aggressive targets, are any achievable without China, India, Russia, and indeed all countries on board? The OECD countries accounted for about 60% of all CO2 emission in 2008. To get back to 1990 levels, these countries would have to reduce their emissions collectively by 17%. (Bring on the nuclear power plants, shut down the coal-powered plants, and accelerate the introduction of more fuel efficient cars and trucks and a 17% reduction is achievable.) If the non-OECD countries are not part of a binding agreement, and they increase their emissions by 25%, global emissions remain unchanged, and temperatures might continue to rise.

Setting aside whether any enforceable agreement is likely to materialize in Copenhagen, are there answers to my questions? Have they even been asked?

The opinions expressed in this blog are strictly personal, and do not reflect the views of Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.

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