Some Perspective On Efforts To Reduce Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Here in New York, we are embarked on a religious campaign to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions dramatically.  It's to save the planet!  The official New York State Energy Plan, adopted in 2015, calls for reduction in total "greenhouse gas" emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.  By the same year, we supposedly will be getting some 50% of our electricity from renewables.  Dramatic!

California has announced very similar goals.  Indeed, their plan for GHG reductions by 2030 is exactly the same in percentage terms: a 40% reduction.

But somehow, when these plans and goals are announced and discussed, it's always put in terms of some percentage reduction, without any mention of absolute figures.  Nobody ever puts these plans into the context of overall world emissions to see whether anything meaningful is being accomplished.

To give some starting context, the population of New York is a shade under 20 million.  California's population is about 40 million.  So, between the two of them, it's pushing 60 million.  Sounds like a lot.  Until you realize that the population of China is about 1.4 billion; the population of India is about 1.3 billion; and the population of Africa is about 1.2 billion.  Add those three together, and you're close to about 4 billion, or perhaps 65 times the population of New York and California combined.   And most of those 4 billion people live in what we would consider energy poverty:  no or minimal access to electricity, no automobiles, no access to air travel, no heat when it's cold, no air conditioning when it's hot, no or little refrigeration for food, no or little access to computers or cell phones, etc., etc.

And somehow those people think that they ought to be able to get the same access to energy that we have.  For example, there was Indian Minister of the Environment and Forests Prakash Javadekar, quoted in the Guardian in May 2015:

Our emissions will grow because we are not developed and we have a right, every person on this Earth has a right, to develop. If today the world is 0.8C warmer [than it was in pre-industrial times], it is not my fault. 

So let's look at some numbers in absolute terms, tons of CO2 emissions.  California admits to annual emissions of approximately 430 million tons CO2 equivalent.  New York (State)'s comparable figure is approximately 170 million tons CO2 equivalent.  So between the two of them it's about 600 million tons CO2 equivalent.  That's for everything, not just electricity.

Now consider what's happening just in India.  According to a big report put out by the Indian government in August 2017, there are some 304 million Indians without access to electricity; and India plans to get them electricity mostly by building more coal plants:

Coal will maintain its dominant share of India’s electricity production for decades to come, according to a major report from the government’s planning institute.   The Three Year Action Agenda, released on Thursday by the National Institution for Transforming India (Niti Aayog), laid out a nine-point plan for boosting coal production in India in order to feed increasing demand from India’s coal power sector.  India has 304 million people without access to electricity, the report said, which necessitated growth in all parts of the energy sector.  “The reality of India’s energy sector is that around three-quarters of our power comes from coal-powered plants and this scenario will not change significantly over the coming decades,” said the report.

Let's make a rough estimate of how much additional CO2 emissions will come from just that one expansion of India's electricity capacity.  The 304 million Indians now without electricity are about 5 times the population of New York and California combined.  Coal produces on average about double the CO2 emissions per unit of energy produced as the mix of sources used by New York and California.  So providing mostly coal-based electricity to 304 million new Indian customers will produce something in the range of 6 billion tons CO2 equivalent annually of CO2 emissions.  This will be around 10 times the total emissions of New York and California, and around 25 times the hoped-for 40% reduction in emissions that New York and California think they might achieve by 2030.  Why again are we doing this?

And that's just considering India's efforts to provide electricity for these 304 million people.  The German consultancy Urgewald reported in July 2017 on plans over the next decade by Chinese companies to build more than 700 coal power plants around the world, at a pace described as "frenzied."  And even that was only half of the 1600 such plants planned by all developers worldwide over the next decade.  A 1 GW coal plant (about the usual size they build) can be expected to produce about 6 million tons of CO2 emissions per year.  So 1600 such plants will produce around 9.6 billion tons of CO2 emissions.  Thats about 16 times the total annual emissions of New York and California, and 40 times the reduction they are hoping for.  And that's only in the next decade.

And now, how much are we going to force up our cost of energy in order to achieve this 40% emissions reduction?  Double?  Triple?  Quintuple?