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Reducing CO2 Emissions — How is the world doing?


(This post was added on 5th August 2012, three days beforea n announcement by Canada’s Minister of Environment that the country was halfway towards its 2020 target of a 17% reduction from 2005 levels.  I will be following up in a new post after I have had a chance to review the government’s claims.  I do not expect I will have to retract anything in what follows here.)

Yesterday, the President of the Treasury Board, and Member of Parliament for Parry Sound – Muskoka, stuffed a flyer into my mailbox.  I assume he stuffed all the other mailboxes in his riding too.  I wrote to him once about wasting paper, and he replied with the nicest boiler plate text that had nothing to do with my message.  Nothing like being part of a ‘participatory’ democracy.  Anyhow, yesterday’s flyer was all about what a wonderful job the Harper government has been doing looking after Canada’s environment.  If you have read earlier posts here, you will know I don’t subscribe to this view!  One claim was set as a headline with bold type and a fluctuating font size.  It looked like this:

Our Conservative Government is strongly committed to our COPENHAGEN TARGETS and Canada is on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”

Now, this is a claim that various senior ministers in the Harper government make from time to time, and what follows here is not breaking news, but this claim is false.  It’s as false as claiming black is white.  If they were not politicians, I’d call it lying.  And so I was prompted to take a look at how Canada and the rest of the world have been doing in reducing CO2 emissions.  We are in the middle of a long, hot spring and summer in North America – the sort of summer we should expect to see as climate change kicks in – so looking at how we are all doing in reducing emissions seems appropriate.  After all, it was agreed at Copenhagen, by about 190 countries, that we will limit warming to 2oC., and to do this we will collectively reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases.  Canada’s specific target was to reduce emissions of CO2 by 2020 to 17% below levels in 2005.  Remember that target, but let’s first look at the wider world.

Ironically, the global economic downturn, which began in 2008, and continues to cause economies throughout the world to sputter and stall, only marginally slowed our releases of greenhouse gases.  According to the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from burning of fossil fuels declined by 1.5% in 2009, but in 2010 emissions increased by 5.9%, and a further 3.2% increase in 2011 brought the global total to 31.6 gigatonnes.  Developing countries now emit more CO2 than do developed countries, and the reason is of course that the rates of growth of their economies and the related growth in need for energy greatly outstrip any slow-down in developed countries.  While there has been substantial growth in the use of alternative energy sources, our overall use of fossil fuels has continued to grow.

The BP Statistical Review of World Energy, published in June 2012, reports that world energy use grew 2.5% in 2011, and that oil continued to be the most important fuel source although its fraction of the total (33.1%) was the lowest since records commenced in 1965.

World energy consumption, by source, 1986 to 2011.  ©BP Statistic Review of World Energy June 2012

While use of energy derived from renewable sources other than hydropower had grown an impressive 17.7%, these sources supplied only 184.6 mtoe (million tonnes oil equivalent) worldwide in 2011 of the total of 12,274 mtoe energy use – a scant 1.5% of the total.  The use of hydropower was almost static at 791.5 mtoe.  What has been happening is that while developed countries have been shifting marginally away from fossil fuels and showing only marginal increases in energy use, developing countries with rapidly expanding economies have been rapidly increasing their use of energy and using fossil fuels as the primary source.  In 2011, China recorded a 5.5% increase in its use of oil, a 21.5% increase in use of gas, and a 9.7% increase in use of coal to accommodate an overall increase in use of energy of 8.8%.  The use of coal worldwide jumped to 3,724 mtoe, an increase of 5.4% over 2010.

Trend in use of coal.  © BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2012

This overall increase in use of fossil fuels, and the shift towards greater reliance on coal, ensures that the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere is continuing to grow, and at an increasing rate.  We remain on track to exceed the worst case predictions made by IPCC in their 4th (2007) assessment.  Given the sluggish economies in much of the world since 2008, and the fact that there have been efforts by the multinational community since 1992 to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, these results for use of fossil fuels in 2011 must be considered particularly disappointing.

But what about Canada and its targets?  Let’s look at the facts.  The Energy Information Administration (US) reports Canada ranked 7th among 216 countries for total emissions of CO2 in 2009.  Our emissions were 16.1 tonnes carbon per person, which puts us 4th among major countries on a per capita basis – not an enviable record.  Environment Canada projections are for further increases in emissions at least through 2012.  For the record, the BP Statistical Review of World Energy reports that Canada’s consumption of fossil fuels (the main way we emit CO2) increased 3.3% in 2011 compared to 2010, continuing a long-term trend (our production also increased, but much of this is sold overseas and does not contribute to our emissions of CO2).  Taken together, the evidence, contrary to the Harper government spin, shows us to be on a very strange trajectory if we are to achieve a 17% decrease from 2005 levels (our Copenhagen target).  Our overall use of fossil fuels dipped slightly in 2009 due to the global recession, but has now more than recovered.  We have continued to reduce our use of coal (9% down in 2011), but the slight increase in use of oil (2011 use 0.4% above 2010), and a substantial increase in use of gas (10.3% increase 2011 vs 2010) more than made up for this.  One does not get down a steep hill by climbing higher.  (A detailed analysis of Canada’s situation, and the virtual impossibility of meeting our Copenhagen target, is at

Clearly, Canada is not alone in failing to reduce use of fossil fuels.  Around the world, countries are increasing their use of renewable energy sources (Canada increased use of renewables other than hydro power by 16.1% in 2011, and China increased use of these same renewables by 48.4%), but these sources still account for a scant fraction of all energy used.  In the meantime growth in energy use, even in developed countries, but especially in countries like China, Brazil and India is being achieved by ramping up use of coal, the worst of the fossil fuels in terms of CO2 emissions.  Despite the efforts of all who argue that we cannot afford to have climate warm by more than 2oC, and therefore must begin to rachet down emissions sharply, despite all the promises out of Copenhagen, despite the fact that there have been several climate meetings since Copenhagen including the vapid exercise in Durban last November, the rate of use of fossil fuels continues to grow.  Many countries are doing their best not to talk about their obvious failures.  Some, like Canada, believe that spin becomes truth if spun often enough.  In June 2012, the CO2 concentration above Mauna Loa was 395.77 ppm.

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