The bottom of the pit

The IEA announces that CO2 emissions from fossil fuels stopped growing in 2014.

Will Rogers said it first:

When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.

From an IEA press release on Friday 13 March (sic), my emphasis:

Global emissions of carbon dioxide stood at 32.3 billion tonnes in 2014, unchanged from the preceding year. […]
In the 40 years in which the IEA has been collecting data on carbon dioxide emissions, there have only been three times in which emissions have stood still or fallen compared to the previous year, and all were associated with global economic weakness: the early 1980’s; 1992 and 2009. In 2014, however, the global economy expanded by 3%.

This statistic is highly reliable. The IEA was set up in 1974 with the initial task

to help countries co-ordinate a collective response to major disruptions in oil supply through the release of emergency oil stocks.

Keeping tabs on the oil market and giving advance warning of another price spike means counting barrels of oil, and later wagons of coal and millions of cubic feet of gas. It’s what they do for a living. If you want to challenge their methods, outlined here, feel free, but I reckon it’s a waste of time.

The other reason for trusting the carbon calculation is that it is based entirely on easily measurable physical quantities – I suppose production less net change in stocks – converted by standard carbon content. It does not need the pricing information that is the main source of doubt and error in economic statistics.

Still from Quatermass and the Pit, 1958
Still from Quatermass and the Pit, 1958

Could the data be corrupted by fraud? Again, most frauds involve pricing, not physical quantities. These products are generated by large corporations and sold with paperwork to others, who check the deliveries, all under the watchful eye of government taxmen. A worthwhile scam involving the underbilling or overbilling of large quantities needs the collusion of agents in all three types of organisation. If these scams exist, they are large and complex operations that can’t be ramped up opportunistically from one year to another. So I think we can take the IEA’s word for it. We are at the bottom of a very deep pit, but have largely stopped digging.

None of us can readily imagine a tonne of gas. It’s far more intuitive to convert the emissions from CO2 to carbon using the conversion factor of 3.67 (12+32/12), so the emissions were 8.8 gigatonnes of carbon. Carbon makes up 60-80% of coal by weight, 70-86% in various liquid petroleum products, 75% in methane, 50% in wood. Roughly speaking, taking 75% as the average, we need to increase the carbon number by a third to get a handle on the total weight of fossil fuels burnt: 11.7 gigatonnes last year.

1 standard Cheops. Not a Wales, not a bus
1 standard Cheops. Not a Wales, not a bus

A tonne is easy enough to imagine: it’s a cubic metre for water; slightly more for coal, a cube 108 cm on a side. But a gigatonne, a billion tonnes? Let me propose a journalistic unit like the London bus for volume, the Wales for area, etc: the Cheops, the volume of the Great Pyramid at Giza familiar from childhood through a thousand images. It’s 2.5 million cubic metres. A Cheops of coal would weigh 2 million tonnes. So the amount of carbon humans burn into the atmosphere each year is 5,318 Cheops. (That’s with the simplifying assumption that it’s all coal; a correction for the slightly different densities of oil would be tedious and not very enlightening). In 2013 it went up by 106 million tonnes, or 53 Cheops (IEA report, page 113). In 2014 the growth went from 53 Cheops to zero.

Stopping digging in the fossil fuel hole was a truly historic achievement. Is it a turning point? To climb out of the pit, emissions have actually to fall to zero, and much faster than a mere 53 Cheops a year. Staying on a 5,000-Cheops plateau merely postpones the apocalypse. But that does not seem likely. The strong forces that brought about the shift are still at work: structural change in rich and middle-income economies leading to a dematerialisation of growth; the rapid advance of renewable energies; and efficiency gains all round, from things like cheap sensors and intelligent controls, LED lights, and electric cars. The fall in the price of oil may delay the changes, but is unlikely to reverse them.

A major caveat is that fossil fuels are not the whole carbon story. To get the total impact of human activity, you need to add 0.4 gigatonnes/yr from the calcining of limestone in cement-making, a chemical requirement on top of the fuel burnt. And another 0.9 gigatonnes/yr from land-use changes, +/- 0.5, a huge error margin. (Source: Le Quéré et al, 2013, data for 2011). The trend in cement was still rising then, but it may well have plateaued along with other heavy industry. Net emissions from land-use changes have been falling since about 2000, but are still large. So we still have a net annual growth in CO2 emissions, up to 650 Cheops. The true emissions peak is still ahead of us. But it is climbable.

This news got little play in the media. Partly it’s the disgraceful cowardice or disinterest of the MSM. Partly, I fear, also a reluctance among many greens to play up good news, when our situation is still dire and even half-measures like Obama’s are fought bitterly with smears and lies. But Joe Romm is right. A message of despair just encourages partying on. To move people to action, you must leaven fear with hope.

And God said unto Noah …
Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it.


A Cheops of oil should not be imagined as constructed out of cylindrical barrels, which leave a lot of air space. Noah should tranship the oil into containers that stack densely, like shipping containers, jerrycans, Tetrapaks, or Pentagon-specification Ziploc bags. There’s no good thought experiment for the gas.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

5 thoughts on “The bottom of the pit”

  1. Quartermass and the Pit is a good example of the principle that with an intelligent script in hand, one can make a fine sci-fi film on a small budget. Originally a BBC mini-series, it was remade as a feature length film (sometimes titled "Five Million Years to Earth". I recommend both to sci-fi film lovers.

  2. It is important and good news. Some economists disputed its possibility, so unless there's some mistake, we have a precedent.

    OTOH, we're still digging down the hole – all we've done is stopped digging down at a faster rate.

    We'll stop digging down when net emissions are no greater than the oceans ability to absorb excess CO2 we've dumped in the atmosphere.

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