Why news of reductions in carbon emissions is not good news

Carbon emission reductions are falling in the United States; in 2008 figures released by Celsias have indicated that as oil use fell by three percent and coal use fell by one percent, overall emissions fell by three percent. It seems that the United States is on course for further reductions in oil and coal use, which could mean a further reduction of carbon emissions over 2009.

This is good news because it shows that reductions are possible, say Celsias. I would be more cautious. The reduction of emissions in the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide cannot but be welcomed, but there are a number of factors which we need to consider before we can claim that we are on course to protect the planet and the climate.

  1. The lower uses of oil and coal might be the result of the recession, rather than the result of any major climate protection initiatives;
  2. The USA has launched a number of excellent initiatives but these are still in an early stage and it is probably too soon to see any significant emission reductions as a result.
  3. The figures take no account of emissions created by the United States in other parts of the world; China has become the factory of the United States and of many other nations and although it has many renewable energy installations it exploits its indigenous coal industry, which leads to increased emissions. Similarly India emits carbon dioxide for other nations, including the United States.
  4. The first savings of emissions are the easiest and the cheapest. Progressive savings are more expensive and impact on lifestyles, through cost and through controlling human behaviour.
  5. The emission of carbon dioxide must always be considered in the context of its longevity; reducing emissions by 3% means that (according to our present understanding of the science) “only” slightly less than half of the carbon dioxide can be absorbed by the planet; the rest will accumulate like compound interest for the next hundred years.

Good news is always good news, but minor emission reductions are hardly good news. If we, for example, described the fact that fewer people were being killed in Afghanistan as good news, we would be missing the point, and so it is with news of minor reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

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