Carbon dioxide emissions peaked

Carbon dioxide emissions peaked

By Joan Martínez Alier

In the world and by coincidence in Spain, the peak of CO2 emissions was reached in 2007. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, we should reduce them as soon as possible to less than half of the current ones.

In May 2008 it was announced that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had reached a world record figure, 387 parts per million (ppm) according to measurements made from the Mauna Loa Observatory, in Hawaii (United States). This meant an increase of 30% in a century, from the concentration of 300 ppm that Svante Arrhenius knew when writing in 1895 the first scientific articles on the increase of the greenhouse effect. Furthermore, between 1970 and 2000, the concentration increased by about 1.5 ppm per year, but from 2000 to 2007 the average growth had been 2.1 ppm. At the beginning of 2008, we were speeding up to 450 ppm in another 30 years. But the economic crisis is fortunately a change in trend.

In the world and by coincidence in Spain, the peak of CO2 emissions was reached in 2007. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, we should reduce them as soon as possible to less than half of the current ones. That goal is far from being achieved, but welcome is the news that peak emissions have been reached. We do not yet know if this world peak will be the final one or if it will be a peak in a mountain range of peaks that leads to a climatic disaster. In Spain, the peak of carbon dioxide emissions in 2007 will be final, it is most likely that we will never reach those levels again.

In Spain

Greenhouse gas emissions grew 2.1% in 2007 compared to the previous year, so that Spain was already 52.6% higher than the emissions of 1990, the reference year in the Kyoto Protocol. We could grow 15% under the European bubble, and we had grown 52.6%.

Spanish CO2 emissions fell in 2008 and 2009 thanks to the economic crisis. The cut in production in the electricity sector, the reduction in oil consumption and the increase in wind energy and the greater presence of gas in combined cycle plants, explain the decrease of between 5% and 6% in emissions in 2008 Industrial production fell in December 2008 by 19.6% compared to the same month of the previous year. Cement production is expected to drop in Spain from 50 to 30 million tons per year.

The stoppage of the industries led them at the end of 2008 to the massive sale of CO2 rights that they received for free from the Spanish government in April, within European regulations. The crisis has produced an abundance of permits. That is why the price of CO2 fell in Spain and internationally. This is bad in the sense that it removes incentives for the production of renewable energies. The government should restrict permits in 2009.

It should be noted that the carbon permit market is a totally artificial market, since the supply of permits depends on the political will to restrict emissions, not lowering them to the necessary level, but within what is economically and politically tolerable.

In Spain, the total reduction of emissions may be around 6% in 2008. And it can be expected that the decrease in 2009 will be another 8% (due to the economic crisis and for now being a good hydroelectric year). Reducing energy consumption also allows for faster substitution between energy sources favoring conservation, wind energy and solar energy, as long as prices are somewhat sensible (ie coal is not subsidized). It is absurd that in a situation like the current one, lignite thermoelectric plants are promoted, such as the one planned in Mequinenza.

The Spanish government rushed in 2008 by saying that it would buy CO2 emission permits from European countries that have excess permits. It is called "hot air" to the surplus permits in Eastern countries whose economies decreased after 1990 and whose energy efficiency increased after the political change (Russia, Ukraine, Poland). With the generous quotas that Europeans self-awarded in Kyoto in 1997 (for Spain, a 15% increase compared to 1990), hot air will also appear in Western Europe and even in Spain in a few years, if the crisis continues. That goes against the continued effort to cut emissions.

To Copenhagen

There will be a decline in GDP in the United States, the European Union, other European countries, and Japan in 2009. In the United States, in the nine months since August 2008, gasoline consumption has dropped by no less than 10 percent. In 2008 and 2009, emissions from these countries (which together account for more than 40 percent of total emissions) can be estimated to fall by 5 percent per year. That is really high compared to the objectives so far considered.

But due to a problem of mental censorship, neither the IPCC nor the Stern Report nor the European Commission had contemplated scenarios of decline for two years of the world economy followed, perhaps, by stagnation in the manner of Japan.

The economies of South America, which in the neoliberal era were reprimarized, turning to the export of raw materials (under the leadership of President Lula) are now paying a high price. Its growth has been interrupted by the crisis. In 2009, as the terms of trade for primary products whose prices have dropped by half since August 2008 (coal, oil, iron ore, copper, and also soybeans) have worsened, the economies of Latin America will not grow . On the contrary, they will decrease a little. The terms of trade (prices of exports compared to prices of imports) will drop, an estimated 15 percent.

The increase in emissions in India will be in proportion to the growth of their economies, which will be perhaps 5 percent in 2009. In India, CO2 emissions are well below the world average (15% of the population world with 4% of emissions). In China, economic growth seems to be 7 percent, emissions will grow a lot but a little less than the economy. China's emissions per capita are close to the world average and as a whole it is already the country with the highest emissions. But when you do the math, you see that the decrease in emissions in rich countries will not be offset by the increase in China, India and a few other countries whose economies are growing. Therefore there will be a decrease in global emissions.

How will this be received at the Copenhagen climate change meeting in December 2009? Will it be recognized that the economic crisis in rich countries has had this beneficial effect? Will the economic decline of the rich countries be praised? Will a commitment to further reductions be made in the future, even if economic growth recovers?

Joan Martinez Alier He is a professor of economic theory at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and one of the founders of international research in ecological economics. Article published at, May 3, 2009

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