Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Worst-Case Scenario

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 23, 2013 --  

A resurgence of fossil fuel use will send atmospheric carbon levels soaring. Pray that climate alarmists are wrong about the effects.

When General Motors and Nissan built electric vehicle production lines three years ago, the world seemed poised to turn a new page. Several encouraging trends made it look like the days of fossil fuels were numbered. Global carbon dioxide emissions actually declined between 2008 and 20091, triggered by the recession's shuttering of inefficient polluters in the rich world. America's suburban housing market had recently collapsed, and memories of 2008's record-high gasoline prices made the future of fuel-hogging long commutes look doubtful. To top it off, a widely predicted renaissance in nuclear energy promised to deliver ample electricity to power electric cars and factories with zero carbon emissions.

Three years later, carbon-based fuels have come back with a brutal vengeance. Sales of electric vehicles have been a bitter disappointment, with only 50,0002 Honda Leafs and even fewer Chevy Volts sold to date. Meanwhile, excitement in the future of the automotive has shifted from electric motors to Google's self-driving car. This technology threatens to breathe new life into the suburbs, making driverless long commutes bearable, despite their energy inefficiency.

And these commutes are more likely to be fueled by old-fashioned carbon-spewing gasoline thanks to new oil production technologies. The exploitation of oil from Alberta's tar sands and the migration of hydraulic fracking technologies from natural gas to oil promises to make North America a net exporter of oil by 20133. And when these same technologies are applied to other parts of the world, they promise to extend by many years the availability of affordable oil and gasoline to power the world's cars and industry.

And that nuclear renaissance? That vanished in a single day two years ago, when a tsunami and earthquake nearly caused a meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. As a result, Japan shuttered its nuclear reactors, and Germany announced plans to permanently phase out all of its atomic energy, replacing it largely with electricity made by burning fossil fuels.

This all adds up to a worst-case scenario for future carbon dioxide emissions as modeled by climate scientists. As activists and UN bureaucrats obsess about miniscule carbon reduction targets for the rich world, the developing world is burning everything in sight. Seven years ago, China surpassed the United States as the largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Other than a brief dip during the recession, yearly emissions continue to go up, led by economic growth in developing countries.

Source: UN

The idea of reducing carbon dioxide emissions now looks so impossible that is nothing more than a bad joke. People around the globe are going to continue burning more and more fossil fuels for decades, releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at ever faster rates. Atmospheric CO2 levels have already gone up from a bit below 300 parts per million at the beginning of the industrial era to nearly 400 parts per million as of last week.4 Most of this increase has been in the last few decades, as the world population, economy, and energy use has grown sharply.

The few shreds of good news you are likely to hear come from the rich world. In Europe, Japan and the United States, carbon dioxide output has not grown much in the past decade because populations are stable, car ownership is already widespread, and mature economies have been able to shift from manufacturing to less energy-intensive services by sending manufacturing to poorer countries. It is in these poor countries where the real problem lies. In rapidly-growing China, India, Vietnam and Mexico, carbon dioxide output has grown exponentially, as smokestack industries develop and economic growth allows for people to upgrade from bicycles to motorcycles and cars. As these countries' economies mature, growth in energy use will shift to poorer nations like Burma, Nigeria and Pakistan. Unfortunately, there are enough poor countries desperate for growth that the world looks poised to continue burning whatever it can until the last drop of oil is tortured out of the tar sands or shale. No amount of climate change proselytizing will change this trend.

This is the worst-case scenario that climate scientists have been warning about, and there is little chance of stopping it. Pray they are wrong about the predicted effects -- melting of the ice sheets, dramatic rising of sea levels, widespread drought and ensuing famine.

If they are not wrong, humanity's fate will rest in the hands of the ability to control the unfolding disaster through large-scale capture and storage of CO2, or grandiose geo-engineering projects to grow plankton to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. And if a disaster comes and these measures fail, then mother nature will ultimately solve the problem. The question remains how many people will still be around to see things stabilize.

Related Web Columns:

The End of Oil, June 13, 2006

Vacationing in Fargo, December 2, 1997


1. United Nations, MDG Indicators, April 2013

2., 43,829 EVs Sold By Renault-Nissan In 2012, February 5, 2013

3. International Energy Agency, IEA World Energy Outlook 2012, November 2012

4. United Nations, Ibid.

5. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, Up-to-date weekly average CO2 at Mauna Loa, April 14, 2013