Sunday, May 26, 2019

CO2 emissions: The trend is not your friend

When the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported in late March that energy consumption in 2018 rose at the fastest rate in a decade, it confirmed something that most of those who truly understand the climate crisis already know: Collectively, humanity is making almost no progress in doing anything significant about climate change. So, it's not surprising that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has hit yet another record high.

While the dominate public narrative has been that we are making great leaps toward a low-carbon economy through the rapid deployment of renewable energy, the IEA report showed a civilization moving inexorably toward climate catastrophe.

Of the growth in energy demand—the extra energy needed to power the world economy in 2018 versus 2017—70 percent was supplied by fossil fuels. When we hear, as the IEA tells us, that solar energy generation increased by 31 percent last year without appropriate context, we fail to understand that this is off a very small base relative to fossil fuel energy.

Coal burning accounted for about one-third of all emissions in 2018. Coal consumption continues to increase. This, we are told, is despite the rising use of natural gas for electricity generation. But, natural gas, though it contains less carbon, is still a carbon fuel.

Perhaps the most important statement in the release was this:

Almost a fifth of the increase in global energy demand came from higher demand for heating and cooling as average winter and summer temperatures in some regions approached or exceeded historical records. Cold snaps drove demand for heating and, more significantly, hotter summer temperatures pushed up demand for cooling.

Climate change is creating a vicious cycle in which that change creates greater extremes in weather which create more demand for energy which is still largely generated using fossil fuels—which then release more greenhouse gases creating even more extreme climate.

The IEA does make a strong statement that the world is moving in the opposite direction it needs to. But, of course, the IEA's role is to make such statements. It cannot force any of its member governments to do anything.

The problem is not lack of information or understanding. When even staid multilateral organizations such as the IEA state baldly that we are in terrible trouble, you can be assured that the message has become acceptable at the highest levels of government.

We are not only not reducing carbon emissions, we are increasing the rate at which we put carbon into the atmosphere again.

A friend said recently that all of the energy "solutions" we have now are conspiring to push back the wall he expects civilization to hit just a little bit while increasing the speed at which we will hit it.

A common saying among investors is that the trend is your friend. That is likely true in a wide range of human pursuits. But, in the case of climate change the trend has never been our friend and it is getting more and more unfriendly with each passing day.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Robin Datta said...

Declining net energy of fossil fuels requires the burning of greater quantities of fossil fuels to release the same net energy.This aggravates theproblem.

shastatodd said...

sadly, no one gives a shit about the earth if that means changing their non-negotiable lifestyles...
so my "green, environmental" friends continue to breed, travel by air for pleasure and eat at the top of the food chain... while they worship at the altar of technologod (green new deal nonsense) and "they will think of something" (which mitigates the second law of thermodynamics) lol.

so rather then continuing to be dumbstruck at rapacious human narcarcissim (suicide), i withdraw and retreat, preferring to enjoy these remaining "good old days" in my simple, low carbon footprint (~3 tons/year) way.

Anonymous said...

Two decades and 3,000 articles later, I finally realized that humans will never accept reality. Climate change is just one of those realities (an extinction level event, so it's a big one). I also finally chose to quit 'trying' and quit spending money on people that are too stupid, too ignorant, too selfish to change. I can only change myself, so that's what I did, long, long ago. Of course, it's not enough. If 100,000,000 million changed to a low-carbon footprint it would not be enough (and hardly make a dent). The the truth is, we are all kidding ourselves about being able to change, or being able to fix this. It's extremely doubtful on both fronts, I'd give our chances of surviving catastrophic climate change at around 1 in a 100 now. Just my informed opinion, but we're absolutely not going to survive the so-called "4C" world depicted here:

We will starve first, no doubt at all, as all the plant life we depend upon, and the biology this supports, dies. ~Survival Acres~

shastatodd said...

yeah, and add to climate change, overpopulation, resource depletion and economic insolvency.

and these are still very good days... we grey hairs lived in the best of times!

Don19 said...

Added to all this you have Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil whose policies will speed up the already alarming deforestation of the rains forests.

Shawn B said...


For how much longer can oil production increase? Yes, I am asking the peak oil question. I am curious about your current view.

There is a good case that the cost – in energy terms – of oil production is rising. As the commenter above notes, Net Energy from such production is declining. That is probably true for coal and gas also.

Can we continue to burn the fossil fuel reserves at the same rate, and drive CO2 etc. levels higher? Or will that production rate soon decline as extraction and refined fuel production costs rise? The highest point of production will always be at the peak. Maybe we are there now.

Those questions seem more interesting than ever. I say interesting….there at this point no “good” answer to the question. I just keep wondering about the dilemma we are in, what choice nature may make for us.


RogerB said...

It looks like there was a point of inflection, from annual increases of about 2 ppm to annual increases of 3+ ppm, in about 2004.

One huge source of CO2 in 2003 was wildfires in Siberia ... 47+ million acres, 70,000+ square miles.

Captain Nemo said...

Could large-scale geoengineering such as the ideas outlined in help? It could reduce the heat, but acidification of the oceans would go on unabated. Any thoughts? Is it possible that such a solution could be done as a private, citizen-funded effort with governments being in the pocket of fossil fuel interests in so many countries?

Kurt Cobb said...


I think the peak in world production will be related to what happens with shale oil in the United States. As long as investors continue to be willing to lose money funding such production, it could delay the peak for a long time. But I doubt that investors will be willing to lose money for another decade consistently. So that might put the peak in the mid-2020s. Someone else might deploy some as yet unknown technology and squeeze more oil out of previously in accessible deposits, but they would be fighting greater and greater decline rates globally and difficulty keeping up with growing demand of a much large base of production.

Captain Nemo,

I am highly skeptical of geoengineering as I thing it would almost certainly have many untoward unintended effects on regional climates. I doubt that private efforts could afford any of the solutions being offered.