What are the three most dangerous myths about climate change? Obviously, the one put out by the fossil fuel industry that says that it isn’t happening comes top. But which myths come second and third? I would argue that propositions put out by oil giant BP and the International Energy Agency are the most likely candidates.
The BP myth – expounded in its annual Statistical Review of World Energy – is the idea of ‘decoupling’. This is the belief that the economy can continue to grow exponentially without the need for energy use to follow suit. At face value, this appears to be born out. For more than a decade, global GDP growth has continued to accelerate ahead of growth in energy use. According to BP, this is due to the efficiency of modern technology. We might, for example, think of just how little energy our smartphones and tablet computers use compared to the amount of work they achieve. As the world moves toward the ‘digital economy’, we will use ever less energy as our prosperity grows.
It is worth noting that neither physicists nor engineers make this argument. Indeed, in a really useful article about why we will never have 100mpg petrol cars, physicist Tom Murphy walks readers through the limits to technological efficiency. What about smartphones and tablets? Well, it turns out that they only appear to be energy efficient because the energy use takes place out of sight at the datacentres and across the global communications infrastructure. Mark P. Mills makes the case that, for the time being at least, the digital economy runs on coal. In time, it might run on gas, nuclear of even renewables. But, for now, the digital economy burns a lot of carbon and remains a net contributor to global warming.
The International Energy Agency promotes a similar myth in its annual World Energy Outlook. This says that although global GDP has continued to grow, global carbon emissions have levelled off. This fits with the BP claim that ‘decoupling’ has occurred. Obviously, if we are using less energy, and especially if we are using more renewables, then carbon emissions are bound to fall.
There is, however, a rather awkward fact that the IEA overlooks… atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are still growing. In March, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published data from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii – where they have been measuring atmospheric CO2 since the 1950s – which showed that:
“The annual growth rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide jumped by 3.05 parts per million during 2015; the largest year-to-year increase in 56 years of research.”
Worse still, according to Pieter Tans, lead scientist of NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network:
“Carbon dioxide levels are increasing faster than they have in hundreds of thousands of years – it is explosive compared to natural processes.”
How do we explain the discrepancy between the numbers BP and the IEA have put out with the observations made by the NOAA?
In the end, it comes down to whose numbers you want to believe – GDP measurements made by economists, emissions data self-reported by corporations or atmospheric readings made by scientists. So let me begin by kicking at an open door. Nobody seriously believes that China’s GDP has been growing at anything like the rate that the Communist Party of China says it has. In this, China is no different to the former Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites – if the Central Plan says that there will be growth of 6.5 percent then, if your economists value their lives – they will make sure 6.5 percent is what they achieve… no more and no less. But while China’s Central Committee pedals the fiction that China is growing at 6.5 percent per year, almost every Western observer is engaged in a debate as to whether China is growing at all. Some believe that Chinese manufacturing has been in recession for more than a year; and that this explains why it is dumping unwanted goods (like steel) onto the global market, and why it has dramatically cut its imports of raw materials.
Since China is the industrial powerhouse of the global economy, it would make sense that a hidden downturn could account for at least some of the ‘decoupling’ of global GDP from energy use. In the real economy, energy use is down because less things are being consumed, less things are being manufactured, and less raw materials are being mined and transported. Moreover, despite China being a manufacturing giant, it’s per capita GDP is far from the top of the global league table. That honour goes to oil-rich Qatar, with Luxembourg in second place. Since the majority of Qatar’s GDP is oil and gas-based, it would be difficult to construct an argument that it’s GDP has ‘decoupled’ from energy. But little Luxembourg might be a poster-child for decoupling since – as far as anyone can tell – hardly any economic activity takes place there at all. What we do know about Luxembourg is that it is used as a tax haven by a host of global corporations.
Radical economist Michael Hudson sets out a range of banking and financial transactions and asset purchases that have absolutely no impact on the real economy, but that are included in GDP statistics. This suggests that almost all of the ‘decoupling’ between energy and GDP is the result of the way in which GDP statistics are compiled rather than because genuine economic activity no longer requires energy.
The IEA measure of carbon emissions also raises cause for concern. This data is based on self-reporting from countries and corporations that have an incentive to cheat. As Greg Robie notes:
“China is known to under-report its fossil carbon combustion since about 2000. Tentative effort to quantify its under-reporting suggest it could be as much as 17%. But some of this estimate, given the other variables discussed below, could be politically motivated: biased to obfuscate accountability by the consumers of the goods produced by those emissions. The blame game creates statistics that lie and liars who use statistics.”
So, flat global carbon emissions are most likely the result of a collapse in consumption and manufacturing activities that are not properly accounted for in the official GDP figures, together with inaccurate carbon emissions data that underestimate the amount of carbon being burned. But there is a problem with this argument, since it cannot account for the growth of atmospheric carbon dioxide measured by the NOAA.
This is where things get very worrying. According to Robie, this gap may well be the result of methane emissions that are ignored and under-reported in emissions data, but have a profound and long-term impact on climate:
“In the US the fossil carbon companies self-report methane emissions associated with their production activities. Methane has a CO2e of 34 over 100 years, but initially, because it is chemically broken down into carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by a six step process over the course of about a decade, its CO2e is ~105. The self-reported figures for methane emissions associated fracking and fossil carbon production are, at best controversial. Non-industry data suggest significant under-reporting by the industry.”
If this were not bad enough, there is growing concern about a much greater methane problem resulting from melting Arctic permafrost. In Canada, the permafrost line has shifted around 50 miles north since the 1950s, allowing frozen methane to thaw and seep into the atmosphere. While methane release from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf has risen dramatically in the last decade.
What this adds up to is quite simple and quite terrifying – we may have lost control of the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. Until now we have pretended that concerted action by governments to curb carbon emissions would be enough to lower the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and ultimately reverse global warming. This may still – just – be true. The NOAA say that a large part of the excess carbon dioxide recorded in Hawaii last year can be accounted for by the strong El Nino event. If, however, Robie is correct, and the northern hemisphere has warmed to the point that large volumes of naturally occurring Arctic methane is being released, then even if we stop burning carbon today, we will be too late. Forget two degrees of warming. A runaway methane release would mean double-figure temperature increases within a matter of decades – enough that most of the people alive today will witness the catastrophic collapse of our civilisation through starvation, water shortages, natural disasters and global migrations.