Not Doomed Yet: China Could Peak Its Carbon Emissions in 2025

A weekly summary of global-warming news, for people who want to pay more attention to it

A Catholic-diocese-owned oil well in Oklahoma (Nick Oxford / Reuters)

This is ‘Not Doomed Yet,’ The Atlantic’s new weekly newsletter about global warming. It lives here in the science section; you can also get it in your inbox:

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The Macro-Trends

The atmosphere is filling with greenhouse gases. For the week after September 20, 2015, the Mauna Loa Observatory measured a weekly average of 397.33 CO₂ molecules per million. A year ago, it measured 395.26 ppm. In late September 2005, it measured 376.03 ppm.

For the 10,000 years before the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric carbon was stable at 280 ppm.

Renewable energy costs are plunging faster than anyone anticipated. News this week that, between April and June 2015, more of the U.K.’s electricity mix came from renewable sources—wind, solar, and bioenergy—than it did from coal. Renewables generated a full quarter of the country’s electricity mix for those three months. Last year, during the same quarter, they generated only 16 percent.

Natural gas still leads the country’s electricity mix, generating 30 percent of its power.

The U.S. greenhouse-gas regulations start ambling down the long road to implementation. No major news. Not much minor news, either.

China is planning a cap-and-trade program to limit carbon emissions. On Friday, I wrote something short about why the program is a big deal, which also gets into what a cap-and-trade program is. But the best story was Christopher Buckley’s, in the Times, about the challenges China will face in implementation. The news is mixed:

  • China has previously committed to peaking its emissions in 2030. (That promise basically constituted its landmark November 2014 agreement with the U.S.). Buckley reports that, between the country’s economic slowdown and “weakening dependence on heavy industry for growth,” it could now reduce emissions as soon as 2025.

  • Some readers of this newsletter will know—will be hilariously familiar with—the geographer James C. Scott’s idea of legibility. The concept is simple: Countries generally want to understand what their citizens are doing, so they will change food systems, standardize units and surnames, and otherwise invest considerable resources to make that task easier. Countries, in other words, want to increase the “legibility” of what happens inside their own borders. In his books, Scott cites example after example of this with unceasing, seemingly unedited vim: situations in which a growing empire took over a region and converted its hunt-and-gather economic system into one based around sedentary agriculture, because it’s easier to tax an annual wheat crop than daily fruit collection.

    China’s problem in implementing cap-and-trade is a legibility problem, says Buckley, without quite saying it. An emissions-trading system requires sane carbon limits, ratcheting down over time, which create the scarcity a market requires. That in itself requires knowing how much carbon is being burned in the first place. But as Yang Fuqiang, a senior advisor in Beijing to the Natural Resources Defense Council, says: “Now we’re not even sure just how much energy we consume, so how can you go ahead with trading?”

Before Paris

Nine weeks until the most-anticipated climate negotiations since 2009.

National commitments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions—the I.N.D.C.s I mentioned last week—are informally due on October 1. At this point, all the major emitters except India have submitted plans. Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia announced their commitments this week.

Last week, Christiana Figueres, the UN diplomat leading the climate talks, “guesstimated” that, if the Paris talks were to be successful, they would hold global warming to three degrees Celsius. This week, Climate Interactive released a more complete analysis. If every country follows through on its commitment to Paris, the climate’s average temperature will increase by 3.5 degrees Celsius, or 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit, by 2100. The world has committed to keeping warming below two degrees Celsius.

There was further evidence this week, too, that the world has abandoned the “developing”/“developed” split that limited previous climate talks. As I wrote in my coverage of China’s cap-and-trade system:

For more than 20 years, UN climate talks have bifurcated countries into two categories—“developed” and “developing”—to decide who gets to emit the remaining carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere. That divide is inherited from the first and most successful international environmental treaty, the 1987 Montreal Pact which halted ozone depletion, but it has proven more troublesome in the climate context. Politico reports that in advance of the talks, U.S. and Chinese officials have agreed to drop those categories, hewing instead to “a form of differentiation which depends on countries’ actual real circumstances.”

This week in the Earth system
  • As the climate warms, circumpolar permafrost will melt, and the carbon and methane previously stored in the ice will dissipate into the atmosphere. These extra greenhouse gases will accelerate warming, but they haven’t yet been included in any of the big UN climate-science summaries. As a result, no one has estimated the cost of “Arctic methane” yet. On Monday, researchers at Cambridge and the University of Colorado puts a price tag on it for the first time: $43 trillion by 2200. That brings the best estimate of climate change’s destruction by 2200 to $369 trillion.
  • Forest fires in Indonesia and Malaysia, on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, have gotten so bad this year that the smoke caused Singapore to shut down its schools. Charlie Loyd, a friend and human who works with satellite images, annotates this scene from last Thursday to show how the plumes converge on Singapore:
  • Indonesia’s climate plan, submitted to the UN late last week, does not address its forest and peat fires, which have caused an increasing percentage of the country’s carbon emissions. Indonesia is the 15th-largest carbon emitter internationally.
  • As previously noted, the Arctic sea-ice minimum this month was the fourth-lowest ever recorded. In the maps you usually see, it can be hard to distinguish sea ice from the surrounding ice cap and glaciers, because they’re both white and, well, icy. I like this new Mapbox visualization because it distinguishes the sea ice and shows how bad things have gotten recently—especially in 2012, when the sea ice was the lowest ever seen during the satellite era.
  • After failing to find enough oil or gas there, Royal Dutch Shell has abandoned its plans to drill off the northern coast of Alaska. Every other energy company had already left the region, so it’s now likely that the Arctic Ocean (at least, on the North American side) will not be drilled for oil for decades—if not, hopefully, forever. While adding more petroleum to the world’s burnable supply would never have been good for the climate, environmentalists are particularly pleased with the oil industry’s decision to leave the Arctic. The prospect of so much fossil fuel, so far north, conjured nightmares of a polar oil spill—which could potentially have been so remote, and so extreme, as to be uncleanupable. So this is one area where historically low oil prices (which make it unfeasible to drill for such scant oil and gas) have helped the environment—at least in the short-term.