Citizen Action Monitor

Puzzled about the difference between CO2 emissions and CO2 levels? — You’re not alone

Confusion leads people to a mistaken belief that CO2 levels in the atmosphere can be stabilized if new emissions are flat.

No 1649 Posted by fw, April 24, 2016

On March 16 of this year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) issued a press release titled, Decoupling of global emissions and economic growth confirmed. The release boasted:

Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) – the largest source of man-made greenhouse gas emissions – stayed flat for the second year in a row, according to analysis of preliminary data for 2015 released today by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

“The new figures confirm last year’s surprising but welcome news: we now have seen two straight years of greenhouse gas emissions decoupling from economic growth,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. “Coming just a few months after the landmark COP21 agreement in Paris, this is yet another boost to the global fight against climate change.”

Global emissions of carbon dioxide stood at 32.1 billion tonnes in 2015, having remained essentially flat since 2013. The IEA preliminary data suggest that electricity generated by renewables played a critical role, having accounted for around 90% of new electricity generation in 2015; wind alone produced more than half of new electricity generation. In parallel, the global economy continued to grow by more than 3%, offering further evidence that the link between economic growth and emissions growth is weakening.


Just 5 days later, on March 21, the highly influential Joe Romm published an article in Climate Progress titled, How Can Global CO2 Levels Soar When Emissions Are Flat? Here are selected key passages from Joe’s article.

Last year saw the biggest jump in global CO2 levels ever measured, as NOAA reported on March 9. Yet in 2015 the world economy grew while energy-related CO2 emissions were flat — for the second year in a row — according to the International Energy Agency, as ClimateProgress reported last week.

This puzzled more than one reader. One emailed me the following: “the IEA is saying that emissions have gone flat, while, at the same time, NOAA is announcing that we just had the largest-ever jump in CO2 [levels]. Logic would seem to dictate that someone has their figures wrong. Flat emissions should not translate into record CO2 jumps.”

What’s going on?

Avoiding catastrophic warming requires stabilizing CO2 concentrations (or levels) in the atmosphere, not annual emissions. Studies find that many, if not most, people are confused about this, including highly informed people, mistakenly believing that if we stop increasing emissions, then global warming will stop. In fact, very deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are needed to stop global warming.

One study by MIT grad students found that “most subjects believe atmospheric GHG concentrations can be stabilized while emissions into the atmosphere continuously exceed the removal of GHGs from it.” The author, Dr. John Sterman from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, notes that these beliefs “support wait-and-see policies but violate conservation of matter” and are “analogous to arguing a bathtub filled faster than it drains will never overflow.”

[C]arbon dioxide levels won’t stabilize until human-caused emissions are so low that the carbon sinks can essentially absorb them all. Under many scenarios, that requires more than an 80 percent drop in CO2 emissions. And if the goal is stabilization of temperature near or below the 2°C (3.6 °F) threshold for dangerous climate change that scientists and governments have identified, then CO2 emissions need to approach zero by 2100.

So the…key point is that CO2 levels will continue rising if we merely keep annual CO2 emissions flat. In fact, they will keep rising at a faster and faster rate because the land and ocean carbon sinks are weakening.


On April 12, a few weeks after Romm’s article appeared, Canada’s National Observer published a story titled, Trudeau attacked from all sides over pipeline stance. The story prompted me to add my two cents worth in a repost of the Observer article titled, Building turbines and pipelines compatible? — Do Liberals have any idea what they’re talking about? My subtitle ran: “Trudeau insists there’s evidence to support economic growth while concurrently reducing harmful emissions.”

Three passages in the National Observer’s story caught my attention:

[Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr echoed the buzz word “sustainably”]: “He [Trudeau] has said it is a principal responsibility of the government of Canada to move our natural resources to market sustainably. That is why we are following a process that will consult with Canadians and give people the chance to understand that in this day and age we develop the economy sustainably with one eye on the environment and the other on job creation. That is the way we will move forward sustainably.”

“Finance minister Bill Morneau and others in cabinet convinced Trudeau that the pipelines must be built to achieve the government’s ambitious economic growth targets…”

[Environment and Climate Change Minister Katherine McKenna echoed the boss’ mantra]: “For the projects that are already under review, we have a process – a process where we will make decisions based on the facts and evidence. This includes pipelines…”

With these ringing endorsements of the PM’s confident assertions, in the introduction to my repost, I wrote:

If Trudeau and his MPs hope to win the public trust with their public pronouncements about real or imagined compatibility between economic development and climate change, they should stop talking gibberish. Ministers Carr and McKenna, for example, should avoid using the word “sustainable” and its variants until they know what it means. They might even follow the advice of US physics prof Tom Murphy, who famously wrote:

“So the big question is: can we transition to a truly sustainable lifestyle for the long haul at an energy level akin to what we enjoy today—or even several times higher? No one knows the answer, and thus a true understanding of ‘sustainable’ remains elusive.”

In the context of this post, Minister McKenna should read her department’s excellent 25-page document, The Science of Climate Change, dated November 23, 2015 . Page 15 is particularly instructive: “Risks from climate change depend on cumulative CO2 emissions.”

In the context of the IEA’s boast of “further evidence that the link between economic growth and emissions growth is weakening”, and Joe Romm’s statement that “carbon dioxide levels won’t stabilize until human-caused emissions are so low that the carbon sinks can essentially absorb them all”, Trudeau’s insistence that “there’s evidence to support economic growth while concurrently reducing harmful emissions” must be backed up with incontrovertible evidence.

Let him produce the calculations. Let him tell Canadians, in words and numbers, how much our CO2 levels will need to fall, over what period of time, as we transition to turbines and other renewables, while we concurrently build pipelines and return to a “business as usual” growth economy.

Could it be that the Prime Minister, Ministers Carr, Morneau, and McKenna have swallowed whole the fiction that “atmospheric GHG concentrations can be stabilized while emissions into the atmosphere continuously exceed the removal of GHGs from it.”?

In short, have the Liberals allowed the fossil fuel industry’s profit-driven interests to take precedence over the public’s fear-driven terror of runaway climate change?


In the course of researching and writing this post, I set out to find a video that might help people to understand how CO2 emissions build up and remain in the atmosphere. .

Here’s my choice.

Science behind global warming by Emily Blegvad, Published May 19, 2014 – In Emily’s words – “I made this for my final project in Chemistry in 11th grade. Hope you enjoy! This video details how we understand global warming, and the chemistry behind how it affects each and every one of us.”

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