Long Tail of Carbon Emissions

Flooded ATV Park, Johnson County, Iowa.

Earlier this century India and China decided to build fleets of coal-fired power plants as their citizenry entered a world most Americans and Europeans already knew for its modernity and comparative affluence. The two populous states required more electricity.

Carbon emissions from the new plants have come home to roost. According to the International Energy Agency,

Global energy consumption in 2018 increased at nearly twice the average rate of growth since 2010, driven by a robust global economy and higher heating and cooling needs in some parts of the world. Demand for all fuels increased, led by natural gas, even as solar and wind posted double digit growth. Higher electricity demand was responsible for over half of the growth in energy needs. Energy efficiency saw lacklustre improvement. As a result of higher energy consumption, CO2 emissions rose 1.7 percent last year and hit a new record.

China, the United States, and India together accounted for nearly 70 percent of the rise in energy demand, according to the report. Failure to reduce carbon emissions is a result of the lack of political will to adopt renewables as aggressively as their lower cost warrants.

Having lived through the India-China build-out of coal plants, I understand why and importantly that they are planning renewables and to some extent, natural gas and nuclear power, for new electricity generation. The writing is on the wall for coal’s hegemony according to Energy Innovation:

America has officially entered the “coal cost crossover” – where existing coal is increasingly more expensive than cleaner alternatives. Today, local wind and solar could replace approximately 74 percent of the U.S. coal fleet at an immediate savings to customers. By 2025, this number grows to 86 percent of the coal fleet.

While their analysis does not adequately consider stranded costs, it is doubtful India or China will abandon coal-fired power plants built since the turn of the century as they are comparatively new. That is, unless the climate crisis is adequately recognized by governments.

Any doubt climate change is real? The New York Times reported on the flooding in Hamburg, Iowa:

“I’m looking at global warming — I don’t need to see the graphs,” said Hamburg, Iowa’s mayor, Cathy Crain, referring to the role of climate change in increasing the frequency of extreme weather events. After two record-setting floods in a single decade, Ms. Crain said, “I’m living it and everybody else here is living it.”

We shouldn’t be shocked by the International Energy Agency report as rising emissions were planned by China, India and the United States a long time ago. There is a long tail on carbon emissions and government is largely responsible to turn the corner. The report highlights we are going the wrong direction.

How many more tragic incidents like the one in Hamburg are necessary before government acts on climate? More people are ready to act on climate now but we haven’t reached our politicians… yet.

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