Atmospheric CO2 hits historic highs, just as global coal use sees historic drop

atmosphere photo
CC BY-SA 2.0 Ed Schipul

Whether it's defeating Keystone XL, shutting down hundreds of coal plants or persuading many of the world's biggest companies to get serious about climate action, I am sometimes astounded by how much progress the environmental movement has made in recent years.

In fact, I have little doubt that the transition to a low/zero carbon economy is underway and will be very hard to reverse. The only question remains, will it happen fast enough?

Perusing the headlines this morning, this question was reemphasized. On the one hand, Business Green brings us news of a Greenpeace report claiming the largest drop in global coal use in recorded history. Even as some countries build new coal plants, says the activist group, changes in certain economies—especially in China and the US—have led to a 4.6% drop in global coal use so far this year. Given that the clean power plan is about to kick in in the US, aforementioned corporate giants are setting ambitious near term clean energy targets, lenders are getting nervous about financing coal and renewables just keep on getting more competitive, I firmly believe we can expect to see this trend continue and, most likely, pick up pace. (Just to add to this argument, another headline over at The Guardian today has a top-level climate scientist suggesting that the fossil fuel industries will implode as renewables get more competitive.)

But let's not get carried away with the good news. The flip side of this story, reported today over at The Guardian, is that Earth's atmosphere is about to cross the symbolic threshold of global average CO2 concentrations of 400ppm, 43% higher than pre-industrial times. The problem, of course, is that these emissions are cumulative—so even if we cut our annual emissions, it just means we are slowing down our additions to an already out-of-whack system. The real kicker, unfortunately, is that higher CO2 concentrations can and are setting off feedback loops that make matters worse—contributing, for example, to wildfires like the one burning in Indonesia that's emitting more greenhouse gases than the entire US economy.

Whether it's cultural, economic or ecological, the one thing we know about change is that it's rarely linear. Things change slowly, over time, until at some point critical thresholds are reached and a broader, cascading set of changes take hold. There's much to be gained in crossing those thresholds in terms of clean energy, efficiency and regeneration/healing of our natural world. And there's much to be lost in terns of crossing those thresholds in terms of climate stability and ecological destruction.

We can no longer ask ourselves how quickly can we afford to cut emissions. Instead, we must ask ourselves how long can we afford to wait.

Atmospheric CO2 hits historic highs, just as global coal use sees historic drop
The fight against climate change is a race against time. And signs of progress are mixed.

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