We’re losing one of the world’s most important records, Nick Schoon discovers


As September closes, so does one of the world’s most important data logs – one which records how much carbon dioxide (CO2) humanity puts up into the atmosphere each year.

The US Government’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC), based at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, has been gathering this information about the most important man-made greenhouse gas for more than 30 years. But as of October 2017 it comes to a halt.

CDIAC estimates how much CO2 each nation emits from burning coal, oil and gas and manufacturing cement – this latter a surprisingly large contributor to global emissions. Then it adds it all up to give a grand total, and makes it available on a website for everyone to see.

For climate diplomacy and the Paris Climate Agreement, these are the most significant numbers of all. The rising rate at which CO2 and other greenhouse gases spew into the atmosphere needs to peak soon, then start falling rapidly if dangerous increases in temperature are to be avoided.

Using historical records, CDIAC’s researchers have been able to stretch their data log back to 1751, when the industrial revolution and the era of coal burning were kicking off in the UK. They estimated global annual emissions at 11 million tonnes of CO2 way back then. By 2015, the year of CDIAC’s latest published estimate, that had grown more than 3,000 fold to just over 36 billion tonnes a year.

Meanwhile the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to just over 400 – and rising. Around the world average temperatures have also risen during this quarter millennium, by about one degree C, and will continue to rise.

Most of CDIAC’s various datasets are being transferred from the Oak Ridge lab (originally created as part of the Manhattan Project making the world’s first nuclear weapons) to another National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley near San Francisco.

But there will be no future estimates of national and global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and cement manufacture. The decision was made last year by the US Government’s Department of Energy, which funds both laboratories, and predates the Trump administration.

“We do not have the funding to continue creation of additional year estimates,” one of the team who will be hosting the data at Lawrence Berkeley told me in an email. “It is our hope that a group will come forward to take on this task. We expect to have all the codes used in the production in our archive to help someone pick up the task. Let us know if you are interested.”

So I put it to CDIAC that this particular dataset was its most important and interesting output because:

  • Coal, oil and gas are the biggest contributors to man-made greenhouse gas emissions, which need to be tracked carefully and continuously.
  • CDIAC has established itself as a global leader in gathering and publishing this data.

“All true,” came the reply. “This is a real head scratcher.”

For years the CDIAC data has been used by an international grouping of climate experts, the Global Carbon Project, to produce an annual planetary carbon budget. This tracks all sources of man-made CO2 emissions, not just fossil fuel burning and cement manufacture but also from burning forests and other ‘land use change’. The budget estimates how much of these emissions are absorbed by the sea, how much by the land (mainly by growing plants) and what remains to keep pushing up the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.

Professor Corinne Le Quéré of the University of East Anglia’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, lead author of the latest Global Carbon Budget, is concerned about the termination of CDIAC’s record of annual emissions. “This is indeed a big issue,” she says. “CDIAC is the only data centre that provides consistent emissions back in time from 1750 for all countries.”

So where might this data come from in future? The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre produce an annual report on global trends in CO2 emissions. So does the International Energy Agency.

These are potential candidates. There may be others. The world urgently needs an authoritative, accurate, agreed and up-to-date record of how much CO2 – and other greenhouse gases – nations are putting into the atmosphere each passing year, and what it all adds up to.

As a farewell to CDIAC’s long running log of emissions from coal, oil, gas and cement, I used its data to create this graph showing what has happened to emissions compared to global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) since 1990.

GDP measures how many goods and services national economies produce each year. As economic growth continues, we have to rapidly ‘decouple’ it from fossil fuel consumption in order to bring down emissions and avoid dangerous climate change.

The graph shows that this decoupling is happening – but nowhere near fast enough to bring down emissions. In 1990 0.13 kg of CO2 was emitted for each dollar of global GDP and by 2015 that figure had fallen to 0.09 kg. Yet annual CO2 increased by 62% over that period.

But in the most recent years, global CO2 emissions show signs of levelling off – thanks largely to the decoupling efforts of the world’s biggest emitter, China. Will it continue? Have they peaked? We need to know, but CDIAC will no longer be telling us.

Source: World Bank, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre

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