Arctic Methane: A Global Environmental Disaster in the Making

By Frank Thomas

methane01In the 1970s, permafrost Arctic sea ice at its lowest point covered about half of the Arctic ocean surface. But it has been on an alarming declining trend over recent decades, now covering at its lowest point 25% of the Arctic ocean surface – or half of its previous area and thickness.

This rapid warming of the Arctic region creates a near term world threat of a major sub-sea methane release that could intensify global warming to irreversible levels along with high fossil fuel C02 emissions.

We do know the frozen Arctic tundra holds vast amounts of methane sufficient to eliminate most life on earth. We do know that methane deposits are seeping into the atmosphere as a result of the Arctic’s thawing permafrost. Organic matter frozen in the permafrost contains huge amounts of carbon and methane. When thawed it decays and releases C02 and CH4.

We do know that ice reflects the sun’s rays while oceans absorb the sun’s energies. So less and less Arctic sea ice cover only warms the Arctic region faster and faster. This process is magnified by expanding greenhouse gas emissions that warm up the Atlantic and Pacific ocean currents – thus a vicious circle leading to less sea ice growth during winter and more sea ice meltdown in summer.

In the words of Prof. Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University, a leading world Arctic region expert, “The fall-off in sea ice volume is so fast that it is going to bring us to Zero (cover) quickly.

When? … 2015 is a very serious prediction, and I think I am pretty much persuaded that that’s when it will happen.” Prof. Wadhams is joined in this prognosis by scientists of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG) in an updated Sept. 2012 report, “Declaration of an Emergency.” Following are some key conclusions from AMEG’s report:

“There now exists an extremely high international security risk of acute climate disruption followed by runaway global warming. The collapse of the Arctic sea ice will change the reflective qualities of the Arctic from 90% reflection of the sun’s rays to a 90% absorber. A vicious cycle of Arctic warming started 20-30 years ago, when currents from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, warmed by expansion of greenhouse gas concentrations, transported their “extra heat” into the Arctic – initiating an accelerating decline in sea ice and increase in Arctic temperatures.

The “extra heat” has gone into the shallow seas over the continental shelf, warming them all the way to the seabed – with the potential of causing widespread destabilization of frozen methane hydrates and free gas in the permafrost cap, greatly enhancing global warming. Incidental reports of increasing marine methane emissions are ominous signs that this sub-sea permafrost warming process has already started. In addition, there is the possibility of methane — held as hydrates or under thawing permafrost — being suddenly released in very large quantities due to a disturbance, such as an earthquake.

The quantities of methane in the continental shelf are so vast (trillions of tons of frozen hydrates) that the release of just 1% could lead to the release of the remaining methane (locked in the sub-sea permafrost) in an unstoppable chain reaction. Global warming would spiral upward beyond 2 degree Celsius.”

NL79-methane-diagramBecause of how methane reacts chemically in the atmosphere, it is 20-25 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas than C02 over a 100 year time span, but 72 times more potent over the first 20 years. That’s what make it such a very dangerous gas when emitted into the atmosphere by the melting of Arctic ice crystals and organic matter at the ocean bottom or by hydro-fracking of oil and gas fields now going full steam ahead in the U.S.

Fracking a well can usually only recover 20% of the gas. That means 80% of the gas – including methane – has been released and not recovered. That’s why U.S. regulations on fracking operations must be tough and strictly enforced. On the positive side, methane stays in the atmosphere 10-12 years and has a half life of 7 years. So, if no more methane were added, then every 7 years the amount of methane would drop by 50%.

What Must Be Done About Arctic Methane?

AMEG and Prof. Wadhams, among other scientists, are advocating an immediate emergency cooperative geo-engineering effort to cool the Arctic air in subsequent summers until the sea ice has regained and methane has stopped releasing. This includes artificially clouding the Arctic region, perhaps also exploiting the cooling effect of reflective sulfate aerosols, to reflect the sun’s rays in the warm months from spring to fall. This is viewed by these researchers as an immediate emergency action that should be put in motion NOW.

This is because we do know that methane deposits – of extraordinary amounts sufficient to eliminate living matter on earth – are seeping into the atmosphere as the result of the Arctic’s thawing permafrost. As noted, research indicates that Arctic sea ice is on a melting trend to Zero by the end of 2015!

Over the last 30 years, the Arctic sea ice has shrunk in half. The only way to avoid an ever worsening crisis, particularly in food security, is to cool the Arctic . This has to be done FAST to avoid a much a more serious collapse of sea ice in 2014-15.

Sea ice reflects the sun’s heat. The huge loss of sea ice has resulted in increased melting of the Arctic’s sea ice (and Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets) causing more heat to be absorbed from sun exposure, causing more melting, resulting in another feedback loop.

Warmer temperatures also mean longer Arctic growing seasons where the Arctic acts as a carbon sink. But, there is a “tipping point” where constant warming up of the earth and rapid loss of sun reflecting powers of sea ice makes the Arctic a carbon dioxide and methane source – releasing much more greenhouse gases than the region can possibly absorb.

Arctic research scientists believe that point has arrived. Arctic warming is increasing at a faster rate causing more and more Arctic permafrost thawing and the resultant increased C02 and very toxic CH4 emissions. Little wonder AMEG, Prof. Wadhams, and other Arctic scientists, are loudly warning that methane release into the Arctic atmosphere is a global Ticking Time Bomb!

While methane release from coal mining and oil/gas exploitation, agriculture, livestock, transportation, decomposing garbage landfills, etc., is significant, it is a drop in the bucket compared to the potential methane release from the Arctic.

One trillion tons of Arctic methane released into the atmosphere will eradicate life on earth.

Methane concentration is now about 1,800 ppb (parts per billion) and rising, contributing 15% to the earth’s warming. The C02 equivalent is 385 ppm (parts per million vs. 348 ppm in 1992), contributing 75% to the earth’s warming. But, in the first 20 years, not to be forgotten is the fact that one molecule of CH4 contributes 72 times more to global warming than one molecule of C02.

Of course, the only final way to avert an emission disaster in the Arctic and reduce the overall impact of global warming is to give fossil fuels a step-by-step early retirement.

This means for the industrialized nations a 25%-40% reduction in C02 equivalent emissions by 2020 based upon 1990 levels. Europe has already achieved a 20% emission reduction back to 1990 C02 levels and an exceptionally low C02 emissions per capita of 7.5 tons versus 17.3 tons for the U.S. in 2011.

Stated another way, to avoid highly dangerous climate consequences, the concentration of heat trapping gases, largely from fossil fuels, must be kept stabilized at an atmospheric concentration of 450 ppm C02 equivalent (vs.385 ppm today) by 2050 to keep the global average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050. CO2 equivalent includes CO2, methane and nitrogen – all greenhouse gasses.

This in turn requires that global cumulative emissions must be reduced at least 40% below the amount accumulated by the year 2000 of 2,800 gigatons (Gt) C02 equivalent to 1,700 Gt C02 equivalent for the period 2000-2050.

It means the U.S. needs to reduce its extremely high greenhouse gas emissions at least 80% below 2000 levels by 2050. This obviously demands a rapid shift away from fossil fuels and related greenhouse gas emissions over the next 40 years. (Sources: “How to Avoid Dangerous Climate Change,” by Union of Concerned Scientists, Sept. 2007; “Trends In Global C02 Emissions” – 2012 Report by European Joint Research Center of European Commission and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency).

This world goal of a 40% reduction in cumulative emissions to 1,700 gigatons of greenhouse trapping gases in the atmosphere by 2050 is ominously overwhelming – especially when one considers China and India’s 4.5 billion population base.

In an unbelievably short time and at only the beginning stage of industrializing, China has already reached (mainly from dirty coal) the same C02 emissions per capita as Germany today … with an average Chinese and Indian household purchasing power of one-8th and one-16th, respectively, of that of the average European or American household! China and India are adding one coal powered power plant each week!

Talk about future clean energy needs to avoid a 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) Sahara Earth average temperature by 2050 … assuming we survive the methane threat before then!


Historical data shows conclusively that global surface temperatures over last decades are higher than at any time over the past 400 years. In the Northern Hemisphere alone, the recent rise in temperatures is the highest seen in the last 1,000 years! All this points to the absolute necessity of aggressively transforming to all-out integrated green energy policy actions – bottom up and top down – that drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels the next 40 years.

But this post is all about an immediate NOW priority for global leaders to face directly the Ticking Time Bomb of a near term potentially explosive, highly toxic methane release in the Arctic region of unimaginable scale!


  1. avatarJohn Lawrence says

    Frank, thank you for this important information which no one else is even mentioning. We hear a lot about CO2 but not much about methane. Methane burnoff from the fracking fields in North Dakota is lighting up the night sky to the same degree as the city of Chicago according to Al Gore.

    And yet many of our lawmakers will not even acknowledge there is a CO2 problem, much less a methane problem. I think we have to go with the science which is getting more and more sophisticated especially with information garnered from satellites which can measure the heat emitted from various parts of earth and compare that over the last 30 years. They show that the earth indeed is getting warmer.

    Despite all the scientific evidence, earthlings (especially in the US) are dragging their feet on this probably because they don’t figure it will affect them in their lifetimes.

  2. avatar says

    Basically, we’re likely past points of no return – and in the near future – far nearer than most people are happy to consider, we’re going to see increasingly serious effects coming through the pipeline as the Arctic sea ice melts out and land based snowpack retreats earlier and earlier. PIOMAS provides a credible forecast for total summer time sea ice loss within the next few years – supported by recent satellite data from Cryosat 2.

    Time to prepare.

  3. avatars katz says

    Effective methane half life in the atmosphere will increase.

    Methane in the upper atmosphere is broken down by a combination of factors – one of which is impinging solar energy, which is fixed. As concentration of methane goes up, the effective half life goes up as well, probably at a much higher than linear rate because solar energy needed to break it down is fixed and does not change.

    There’s already some early indications that the effective half life [how long it takes CH4 to breakdown] is lengthening. This alone serves as a major component in an unstoppable positive feedback loop.

    • avatarschwankmoe says

      likewise it is dependent on hydroxyl radicals which are formed by UV light and water vapor. because of this, hydroxyl concentrations are high around the equator and very low at the poles.

      this is one reason why methane concentrations are so high around the north pole (further because there are growing land- and sea-based emissions of the stuff in the high altitudes). so the far north and far south are about the worst places for methane to concentrate because there’s little to help oxidize it, leading to a much longer atmospheric lifetime.

    • avatarNicholas C. Arguimbau says

      Thanks, Steve. I’ve assumed this would have to happen. Do you have a link for us to the scientific evidence of a lengthening half life?


  4. avatar says

    Thanks for your diligent work once again, Frank. I don’t know how you have the stomach to digest so much frustration and anguish. I feel totally helpless to do anything about this. Email my congressman? Like that will do any good at all…

    I think we’re all screwed!

    • avatarJohn says

      Here’s a splendid idea: We’ll create a cap and trade program in California with penalties and endless amounts of bureaucracy, that we’ll force corporations to absorb the costs of, with tiny potential of influence on the actual emissions….. purely in the hopes that the Chinese, whose people are merely trying to put food on the table, might see this example and follow suit someday.
      Fat chance, as China’s domestic policies are not driven by the citizen’s outrage or conscience.
      No it’s just going to drive more of this and faster:

      “In an unbelievably short time and at only the beginning stage of industrializing, China has already reached (mainly from dirty coal) the same C02 emissions per capita as Germany today … with an average Chinese and Indian household purchasing power of one-8th and one-16th, respectively, of that of the average European or American household! China and India are adding one coal powered power plant each week!”

      Most of our environmental policies of the last several decades have had the effect of cleaning up local pollution at home but driving industry to the other side of the planet, with less controls than we had here.

      To a land where the people do not control their leaders as well as democracy and free press can. Remind yourselves that the Chinese can not see Youtube or most of the internet we do. 90% of their internal waterways are not potable. Can’t drink or bathe from it.

      If they even knew what they were doing they could not stop it.

      Yet on the table are only more policies that got us here in the first place. Like Kyoto.

      Now how’s that working out for us?

  5. avatarJohn says

    I can’t help but note this could be taken as proof of one of the claims alarmists have long scoffed at- that global warming is not an effect of solar variance because since the sun has somewhat decreased activity since 1980, the earth should have begun cooling.
    Some background, starting in the late ’40’s the sun had greatly increased sunspot activity, and thus output, to a magnitude unprecedented since this was tracked beginning around 1600.
    These cycles continued without interruption until around 1980, when they did somewhat decrease, though the level was still above the nearly 400 year average.
    So why did we expect an immediate cooling trend?
    Why wouldn’t we expect the melting of polar ice going on over those 3-4 decades to release methane into the atmosphere and force warming through a residual effect- which also raises CO2 levels? This would continue the warming and negate the argument why warming should not have continued.
    This is not my theory alone, it’s been proposed by a number of relevant experts over the years, who saw their colleagues angrily and spitefully attempt to marginalize them professionally.
    (see “climategate”, i.e; Willie Soon)
    If that’s completely wrong and it’s too late anyhow, perhaps it’s time to review the policies that have been pursued so far which appear to be more aligned with a global socialism agenda than climate change solutions. You know, plans that penalize the “have” nations in Europe but had no similar requirements for China and India. Did you think capital wouldn’t flow to the places with less restrictions? This is an uncomfortable reality but proven by language such as “carbon equity” and “climate justice” in publications by the entities leading this.
    Do you think that INDUSTRIALIZING billions of third world people would solve a problem blamed on human industrialization? Yet that, in effect, is what they are doing. Most UN programs seek to build infrastructure- roads, electricity, running water, etc, in third world countries because we all feel bad for the third world people who don’t have what we do- and corporations use that infrastructure to market products to those people, and will build factories as well. This all makes the problem that much worse.
    I am very oriented toward environmental policies. On climate change there really is a lot of confusion and just plain dishonesty going on, and I think that’s because many are seeing their ideologies collide. They can be called religions.
    Global Socialism and reducing the footprint of mankind are mutually exclusive pursuits, contradicting goals. I hope this is obvious.
    Thank you for considering my opinion.

  6. avatar says

    What we need now is “smart industrializing” for the Third World. That’s why the UN and the advanced nations should be in there helping them to use renewable energy sources even if the First World has to pay for them. That’s better than making the planet uninhabitable. Maybe that’s global socialism – the first world spending money to help the have nots. But what’s the alternative – global warming run amok?

    • avatarJohn says

      If I had the solution of course I’d offer it.
      I guess all I can do is point out that at the grass roots level people seem content to merely forward this all as a political agenda, with wishful thinking in place of review of the big picture of the effects of policies.
      You seem to suggest a very common sentiment I hear when I raise this uncomfortable issue, that it’s okay that billions of people will have electricity and all the trappings of the first world- and the first world’s ability to damage the planet they never had before- because they’ll be able to do it all with renewable/alternative/green energy sources, we just need to throw a little money at it, close our eyes and tap the heels of our ruby slippers together three times and those poor people will have the good life and it didn’t hurt the planet at all.
      Problem solved! See, we were doing the right thing all along.
      (Please don’t take this rant as entirely toward you, reiterating I’ve heard this many times in far more over the top ways- like giving them all those soccer balls with generators)
      Ahem. Do you really believe that will be the case? I can’t afford a grid of solar panels on my rented duplex, in a country with social stability.
      The people in these countries usually live in shacks on land they can’t even own, in towns with warlords or other violent factions making life very fragile.
      Americans, the “haves”, haven’t developed viable renewable power sources on any kind of a widespread basis and won’t in the near future. What makes us think people struggling to stay alive and just eat in third world countries will have $2-5000 windmill generators, or $10k off grid solar systems (1/3 what it would take to do a US home) installed powering their shanty towns? Ever? The article clearly states the Chinese industrialization is virtually all coal. No renewable solutions there.
      Meanwhile they are industrializing NOW. With corrupt leaders with outstretched hands giving lip service to their donors about environmental reform, but aren’t going to lift a finger to solve this long term global issue.
      Why should they? They want their slice of the pie too.
      What’s the alternative?
      Well it’s a rather ugly overall philosophy, you stand back and let the third world continue its record of famine, pestilence, high infant mortality and birth rates, and you don’t educate them, you don’t give them running water or help improve their lives.
      Because on the way to reaching the point where they are aware of the certain doom the planet faces, and can change their political system to do something, you’re going to have several generations of BILLIONS of people with nothing to do with their time but procreate, and have less babies die, and have more lights, automobiles, refrigeration, and televisions to see how the rest of us have been living and want it for themselves- as they pave roads, parking lots, corporations put factories in to supply their products, same way our great great grandparents did. Conventional pollution will soar because of their corrupt leaders. Look at shipbreaking, we couldn’t influence that from here.
      It’s insane to think you could enact all these programs to assist them in doing that…
      And reduce emissions associated with human industrial activity.
      It’s time on an individual level to decide what each person is seeking when they concern themselves with Climate Change- is it real solutions with the focus on cleaning up the earth? Or is it, as I fear in some cases (not necessarily present here) the ability to satisfy one’s conscience at the end of the day they did something to “make a difference”? I think when it’s the latter we run into those fatal traps. It’s morally just to save the planet, and morally just to give of yourselves for the benefit of those with lesser means.
      Trying to do both dooms both, much faster. As cynical as all this sounds, it’s just a wake up. We’ve been on the wrong path here.

      As the theme of the article is “it’s much worse than we thought and happening faster” it’s disingenuous to not at least consider the truth to all this.

      • avatar says

        Ah, but Germany and other European countries are doing just what the US is not – coverting entirely to renewable energy sources by 2050. The US could do it too if we had enlightened leadership. Even though China is still investing in coal fired electric plants, it is also at the same time investing in renewable energy programs and is leading the way on solar panels. It’s not all as hopeless as you suggest.

        There is hope for the Third World with some help building the right kind of infrastructure. They’re already all using cell phones having skipped the landline phase. If the US and other advanced nations decided it was in their best interests to help the world convert to renewable energy, it could divert trillions of dollars from the military-industrial complex to renewable energy resources. What difference does it make if we prevent a terrorist attack while at the same time failing to divert an environmental disaster that would make the whole planet uninhabitable?

        As they strive to have the same things the First World has, they could do it in a more intelligent 21st century way. A car is a car regardless of whether it is a tailpipe polluter or whether it runs on clean energy.

        Frank and others are educating people as to the real need to start changing our way of thinking. It is possible not to pollute and still have the power to provide all the accoutrements of a First World lifestyle as long as we convert to renewable energy.

        • avatarJohn says

          That’s interesting but a wish is not a solution. It sounds as if you’re not at all concerned about the path the third world is on because your wish is that they will do things the first world can not.
          Can you afford to buy a clean energy car? Does your home run its appliances on a solar array? Of course not. What makes you think any of that is in the near or far future for billions who live in shacks or mud huts on land they don’t even own?
          I’m not attacking you singularly because your philosophy is all too common. It goes along with telling the people around you we’ve got to do something now right here but forget about those people 10,000 miles away, by the time they matter they can use magic beans to power their lives which should be just as luxurious as ours.
          And it’s our fault we have just been too stupid or greedy to get around to finding the magic beans.
          Well try as we may there have been no magic beans and we have incrementally made some changes to level off our GGE here. Across the world their industries are exploding in growth and leaders of nations who still virtually enslave their people are going to feed us all the BS they think we want to hear about how their magic bean search is on the verge of success.
          The devil in all this is we’re throwing money at magic bean hunts and taxing corporations and individuals for magic beans they aren’t going to get taxed for overseas and the corporations are eying their opportunities there and exploiting them. It’s only accelerated the damage.

      • avatar says

        The developing countries cannot industrialise to the extent the western world has. Most of the billions of people living today will be dead as a consequence of abrupt climate change before that point is likely to be reached.

        However, it’s awful tiresome to speak to western people and to hear them use the developing countries as their excuse for personal inaction. The developing countries have just as much moral right to destroy the ecosystem as the richer nations that contributed far more of the historic harm.

        I think it is almost a given that civilisation is on a death trajectory, excepting a remarkable last minute effort doing all the things that ought to have been done decades ago – and a whole set of new undertakings that are only required as we procrastinated so long in the first place? As time passes the difficulty of addressing the issue soars – if we couldn’t do the easy fixes decades ago, what hope now?

  7. avatarNicholas C. Arguimbau says

    Unfortunately you are probably right that we are very close to the point where geoengineering is the only choice. Shortly after having been briefed on the Waxman bill, which was supported by the major environmental groups as the “solution” to global warming – they are masters at settling for half the baby’s head being chopped off – John Holdren made a statement that it was probably time to look seriously at geoengineering. That outcome has likely always been the intent of the fossil energy industry

  8. avatarTerry Moran says

    I think the time for geo engineering has past us by.

    The Arctic has transitioned from a solar reflector to a solar furnace. Any project put on the drawing boards today can’t be moved to the factory floor, let alone the deployment stage, before the infrastructure needed to complete it has been destroyed.

    Methane’s GHG equivalency is given as between 72 and 105 times that of CO2 over a 20 year period, but it only lasts for 12.4 years. What is the multiple for the period in which it is viable? How much damage will it do in the first year or first 5 years after it’s release?

    I’m in my mid 60’s and I expected to dodge the bullet. Not so anymore.


    • avatar says

      72 is the IPCC figure, which I believe excludes aerosol effects. 105 is the Drew Shindell (NASA) figure including direct and indirect aerosol effects. I’ve never managed to find a figure for a shorter timeframe, which as you say more accurately reflects the short half life of methane – at least when it is being released into an atmosphere where the breakdown mechanism isn’t overloaded.

      A lot of older people will find they haven’t dodged the bullet they thought they might, but as a younger person it is almost impossible for me to feel sympathetic as it was always the case that my generation and later would be hit by it.

  9. avatarJohn Lawrence says

    Human civilization, in particular the US, has to do a U-turn from having a rosy glow feeling because we are suddenly fossil fuel energy self-sufficient to realizing we must leave most of our fossil fuel energy self-sufficiency in the ground. We need to go full throttle towards self-sufficiency in renewables and take other measures to reduce our energy consumption. In effect we have to go back to the horse and buggy era which did not generate the greenhouse gasses that modern civilization has bequeathed to us.

  10. avatar says

    But John, saying we must return to “the horse and buggy era” is not a solution because you and I both know that will not happen.
    I’d suggest we’d be smarter to attempt to anticipate the consequences of our actions and prepare ourselves to deal with them.

    • avatarJohn says

      How much methane will all those horses generate? Will we cut down more rain forests to build those buggies?
      (message, no free lunch)

  11. avatar says

    University of Utah Prof. of Physics, Timothy J. Garrett is a climate researcher I admire for his out-of-the-box thinking and remarkable research on climate warming. But I am disappointed this bright scientist seems to have thrown in the towel when it comes to bringing forward some effective, creative solutions mitigate climate warming. In his mind, “global warming is a long-term natural disaster … because the economic well-being or wealth of civilization is tightly linked to how much energy we can consume.”

    He does not believe we can avert a CO2 and CH4 environmental ruination — unless decarbonization by switching to modern renewables occurs extremely RAPIDLY to keep CO2 levels below 500 ppm (twice pre-industrial levels) . For any interim emergency geoengineering Arctic solution, he sees only negative feedbacks — i.e., changes in the environment that lead to a compensating process and mitigate the change itself.

    For example, he is of the opinion a negative feedback might erase the brightening effect from aerosols going into the clouds. Spraying sun reflecting sulfate aerosols into Arctic clouds to make them brighter/longer-lived tends to shut off the precipitation of clouds, thereby creating less heat and moisture to form clouds. Clouds could dissipate. Thus, the aerosols might end up making the clouds actually less bright and shorter-lived.

    Ultimately, he accepts a catastrophic environmental breakdown as inevitable, but suggests one can always take comfort in the cynical statement, ” If things really and truly are hopeless, well then we don’t have to worry as much. We can just enjoy the present.” I call this passively accepting a likely mass extinction event.

    Of course, the negative feedback propelling those concerned is the reality of doing too little about GHG emissions and the thawing permafrost in high northern latitudes. As Arctic sea ice melts down, big quantities of CO2 and CH4 will be released, now trapped below the frozen soil layer. If that should happen, it would accelerate the warming already under way in the Arctic region with severe global repercussions.

    The only Savior is the Arctic sea ice which reflects up to 90% of the sunlight, whether or not clouds are present. But that Savior is in a stage of structural meltdown for all the reasons already mentioned … opening pathways for CO2 and CH4 runaway emissions into the atmosphere.

    That is why immediate onsite Arctic geoengineering applications are critically needed as well as a drastic speeding up of all efforts to go green, including reforestation. The oceans and trees are carbon sinks that eat up almost half of all CO2 emissions going into the air. But, heat waves and cold waves, burning forests and fields, droughts, floods, desert storms and ocean acidification are all reducing CO2 absorption by the trees and oceans and killing off food supplies. And over the next 30 years we are adding another 2 billion CO2 emitters. And then there’s the fossil fuels, live stock, and waste dumps that are among the anthropogenic sources spewing highly toxic methane into the atmosphere.

    What is the progress in meeting world targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

    Already between 2000 and 2010, 420 billion tons of CO2 equivalent was cumulatively emitted. This is a substantial share of the 1,700 tons of cumulated CO2 eq emissions for 2000 to 2050 that must NOT be exceeded in order to limit a global earth temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius and to stabilize CO2 concentration at 450 ppm by 2050. The 1,700 CO2 emission target assumes no major carbon dioxide or methane emissions from sea ice formations in northern latitudes. This factor plus the trend of increasing global CO2 emissions in 2000 to 2010 makes it’s clear the 1,700 cumulative CO2 emission target might very well be exceeded by 2030 or 2035!

    Following is some telling CO2 emissions data:

    ________________Tons Per Capita_____Billions Tons____%+-
    ________________CO2 Emissions_____CO2 Emissions

    United States______ 19.7____17.3_________5.4________- 2%

    China_____________2.2____7.2__________9.7_______+ 9%

    India_____________0.8____1.6__________2.0_______+ 6%

    EU27_____________9.2____7.5__________3.8_______ -3%

    Sub-Total___________________________20.9_______ +3.5%

    Other Countries_______________________13.1________+0.9%

    TOTAL_____________________________34.0________+ 3%

    In 2011, total global CO2 emissions increased 3% to an all time high of 34 billion tons. China and India acounted for one-third of total emissions and had a per capita emission about one-half of the extremely high US per capita rate. But China’s per capita emissions increased 3.5 times or an astounding 11% annually over 21 years. Total CO2 emissions increased at a rate of 9% in 2011. Assuming optimistically a much lower 4.5% annual growth rate in total CO2 emissions for China and a 6% growth rate for India over 2011 t0 2050, total CO2 emissions for both countries will amount to about 72 billion tons (60 billion China, 12 billion India) by 2050! Think about that! Since 2002, CO2 emissions have increased in China 150% and 75% in India. Remarkable figures!

    The above means China and India will likely account for about 1,250 tons or 74% of the 1,700 cumulative CO2 global emission target for 2000 to 2050. When one adds the 420 cumulative CO2 emissions already emitted 2000 to 2011, the 1,700 target is used up. So, the rest of the world must produce ZERO CO2 emissions 2011 to 2050!

    Unfortunately, this is not going to happen — especially given the already generally timid global response to the evidence of damage to the biosphere and ecosystem that is building up. These figures reveal just how incredibly OFF TARGET we are going with global CO2 eq emissions … making it impossible to achieve a temperature increase of not more than 2 degrees Celcius by 2050.! This will likely bring us to a GHG concentration of +600 ppm vs. the 450 ppm target, correlating to a global temperature increase of 4-5 degrees Celsius by 2050 vs. the 2 degrees Celsius target.

    And then there’s all the interconnected direct and indirect costs — e.g., the potential for massive releases of methane in the Arctic region, toxic chemicals leaking into water systems, public health costs, etc. One wonders what will it take to Wake Up to the necessity getting off transitioning away from fossil fuels as FAST as possible!

    DRILLING and PUMPING oil is becoming more and more expensive and toxic. Easy and cheap oil has been largely extracted. What remains now is increasingly difficult and dangerous to get to and refine — ultra deep, offshore treacherous waters, shale-rock fracking for gas/oil, tar sands, etc. This plus the eventual peaking of oil in 5 or 10 years or longer means high liquid fuel prices and price volatility are here to stay and will increase dramatically in coming years.

    Consequently, producing a barrel of oil is consuming more and more energy, almost exponentially accelerating the consumption of oil. Little wonder the EROIs for oil and gas — Energy Return on Energy Invested — have been going DOWNWARD for years. In contrast, the EROIs for solar and wind have been trending strongly UPWARD. Couldn’t be a better time to transition aggressively short and long-term to 80% alternate green energy sources 80% by 2050 … as Germany and Denmark are steadfastly committed to despite some bumps in the road.

    But, will that happen in America? We are still the biggest CO2 per capita emittor. Where is the animation and leadership to go in a different direction?

    I fear Prof. Timothy Garrett may be onto something with his pessimistic view of societal lethargy in changing bad habits. As Winston Churchil so brilliantly said with his prophetic words,

    ” We are shaping the world faster than we can change ourselves, and we are applying to the present the habits of the past.”

  12. avatar says

    Obviously, it takes energy to make energy. Most of the remaining oil in the ground lies in difficult, toxic drilling conditions much deeper and farther offshore. This requires much more energy to extract the oil and gas. Thus, extraction costs are going higher and higher driving pump prices steadily upward … while renewable energy is steadily getting lower in cost and pricing.

    In this regard, the EROI measurement is the common way to express the efficiency of the energy production process. It measures how many barrels of oil are gained compared to the number of barrels of oil it took to extract and process the oil: i.e., EROI = Energy Return on Energy Invested.

    The HIGHER the EROI, the better. And that is clearly the trend for solar and wind but not for oil.

    Here are some illustrative EROI examples going from high to low:

    (1) A 70:1 EROI means the efficiency of the production process is 70/71 = 99% Net Energy.

    (2) A 10:1 EROI means the efficiency of the production process is 10/11 = 91% Net Energy.

    (3) A 1:1 EROI means the efficiency of the production process is Zero since 1 barrel of oil is consumed to produce 1 barrel of oil.

    Low EROIs like below 5:1 mean that a barrel of oil produced is consuming more and more energy, thus exponentially accelerating the consumption of oil.

    Cleaner renewable solar and wind energy are now showing much more favorable upward trends while EROIs for oil, coal and gas are trending down. This is why clean renewable energy produced and promoted on a grand scale — preferably on a self-reliant district and/or household basis — will be the lower cost preferred energy of many within the next 10-20 years. The quicker, the better!