Reconciling Emissions Data With Concentrations and Energy Consumption

According to the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, in 2016 the world consumed 580.7 quadrillion British Thermal Units, lovingly known as ‘quads.’ In 2010 we consumed 512 quads,a growth rate of about 2%.


Reported emissions of greenhouse gases have plateaued for the past three years and have not risen much since 2010. March 2017: “For the third year in a row, the carbon dioxide emissions that drive climate change worldwide have been level.
The emissions pause is particularly noteworthy because it comes despite a growing global economy, the International Energy Agency announced. That’s a sign that carbon emissions are “decoupling” from the economy as other sources of energy come online.”

Peak CO2

And yet, concentrations of CO2 have risen sharply over this period. Whereas in the past century, concentrations rose by about 0.5 ppm, they are now routinely rising by over 2 ppm. And the last two years have been worse: “For the second year in a row, carbon dioxide concentrations as measured at Mauna Loa Observatory rose at a record-fast clip, according to new data released by the Environmental System Research Laboratory (ESRL). The annual growth of 3 parts per million in 2016 is the slightest shade below the jump in 2015 of 3.03 ppm.”


This is despite the ‘greening’ of the planet, the increase in vegetative cover due in no small part to an increase of CO2. This greening draws CO2 out of the air and should work to lower concentrations.

There is a clear disconnect here.But it’s fairly easy to explain.

There is no automatic meter on power plants or cars measuring their emissions. Statisticians take reports of national energy consumption (and sometimes sales of fossil fuels, when they have to) as proxies for emissions.

They can spot some errors in national data and work hard to be as accurate as possible. But they cannot overcome the difficulties caused by intentional misreporting of data.

Widespread misreporting of harmful gas emissions by Chinese electricity firms is threatening the country’s attempts to rein in pollution, with government policies aimed at generating cleaner power struggling to halt the practice.

…”No official data on the extent of the problem has been released since a government audit in 2013 found hundreds of power firms had falsified emissions data, although authorities have continued to name and shame individual operators.

“There is no guarantee of avoiding under-reporting (of emissions) at local plants located far away from supervisory bodies. Coal data is very fuzzy,” said a manager with a state-owned power company, who did not want to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media.”


Let’s be clear about what I’m writing. China is not lying about their CO2 emissions. Chinese coal companies are lying about how much they emit conventional pollution. However, those who spend their days trying to figure out how much in the way of greenhouse gases we are emitting end up using these statistics.

If concentrations of CO2 are rising higher than we perhaps expected, that might be the reason. If we need to look elsewhere, we might find that other countries are doing the same. And let’s not even start to examine the effect of perverse incentives caused by Emission Trading Schemes in places like the European Union.

It is hard enough to discuss climate change and human contributions to it when we trust the numbers. What happens when we can no longer do so?

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