2012: The Real "Milestone", The Real Danger

Doomsday in 2012? Please, I don't even have time for that. (Check out Ian O'Neill's work for a nail-in-the-coffin of those myths.) But there is a big milestone that we will reach right around 2012.

Prior to the industrial revolution, the Earth's atmosphere was really ideal for supporting the wide diversity of life on the planet. Breaking it up into its physical, molecular contents, the atmosphere, weighing in at just over 5,100 trillion tonnes (5.1 x 1018 kilograms), was made up of the following elements (by mass, not volume):

  • Nitrogen gas (N2): 3,890 trillion tonnes (around 75.5%),
  • Oxygen gas (O2): 1,190 trillion tonnes (around 23.1%),
  • Argon gas (monatomic): 66 trillion tonnes (around 1.3%), and
  • Carbon Dioxide (CO2): 2.18 trillion tonnes (about 0.04%),

plus a variable amount of water vapor. But the amount of these gases in the atmosphere didn't really change very much over the past few thousand years, while human civilization developed, grew, and thrived.

And then, right around the year 1800, something new happened.

The industrial revolution! It brought great things with it, things that helped give us the world we have today. And it brought along with it one small, unforeseen consequence: every atom of carbon that we burned combined with oxygen in the atmosphere, artificially producing
carbon dioxide
in copious quantities for the first time.

This wasn't really a big deal at the beginning, because the amount of carbon dioxide we were producing was tiny compared to the amount that was already there. But over the past 200 years, our energy needs have gone up, and the way we've met them is -- nearly universally -- through the burning of carbon.

By 1870, the world was artificially producing a billion tonnes of CO2 per year.

By 1920, it was 5 billion a year.

By 1960, we'd hit 10 billion a year.

By the late 1980s, we were up past 20 billion tonnes each and every year.

And, at present, we're nearly up to 30 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted annually.

Out of this nearly 30 billion tonnes per year, the United States is responsible for about 6 billion tonnes of it. And over 98% of the CO2 that we emit comes from the production of energy in one form or another.

If you add this all up (and I did a few months ago), you find that humanity is on pace to have added 1.5 trillion extra tonnes of Carbon Dioxide by 2012! How's that for a milestone?

If -- as a world -- we don't cut our Carbon Dioxide production significantly, by 2030 we will have added as much Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere as there was Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere when we started! The world isn't going to end in 2012; it isn't even going to end in 2030. But if we don't do something to stop making this mess that we're continuing to make, it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

So, you've got the facts now. What do you think we should do about it? And how can we make it happen?

More like this

Well, the first thing to do is hope for the best in Copenhagen this year.

The second thing is to hope that Copenhagen will not only stay on paper and give the illusion that agreeing on cutting emissions is enough and we don't have to do anything about it (like we did with Kyoto).

The third thing is to hope that China, India and Brazil are not as atrociously stupid as we are and will industrialize using green technology.

Well, I don't want to say it but the fourth thing is doing some serious geo-engineering research because as it stands now, the first three things we can do is hope, and that usually doesn't do much. Oh, and also we need to seriously start thinking on how to get the international cooperation and diplomacy of geo-engineering... can't imagine how that's going to work :)

And finally: never give up. Thanks Ethan for another awesome post. Probably the thing that "we" (readers of ScienceBlogs) is to never stop informing the public and resisting the forces of denialism.

PS - Holy crap, I never did the math that by 2030 we will have doubled the CO2... That pretty much does it for the argument that we are too insignificant to change climate. Also, one very pessimistic question: this doesn't include the ~800 billion tonnes of methane in the ground, does it?

By RationalFuture (not verified) on 27 Jul 2009 #permalink

Jon Hart ... seems your wrong, CO2 is not the limiting nutrient of most (nearly all) plant life.

There's already more CO2 available than plants need. Adding more will not create any significant growth spurt.

It might be helpful to highlight the difference between the 0.04% m/m percentage in table 1 and the ppm v/v in graph 1--numerically they look the same, but today's 384 ppm v/v is significantly higher than 1800's 280 ppm v/v.

What do do? Maybe we need to go through peak oil, and have a big '\' shaped depression (as opposed to 'U', 'V' or 'W') and adapt to subsistence levels of resource utilization for larger fractions of our population.

There's already more CO2 available than plants need. Adding more will not create any significant growth spurt.

I don't know if that's strictly true. Based on what I remember from biology classes, there are two sorts of plants, C3 and C4 plants, divided up according to how well adapted their biologies are to extracting CO2 from the atmosphere under which conditions.

The working hypothesis is the less-efficient (and less-numerous) plant type is a remnant from earlier periods of Earth's history, where CO2 was in a higher concentration in the atmosphere. This would have been during the Age of the Dinosaurs, and one of the hypotheses regarding their massive size relative to today's fauna is the idea that the more productive plants helped fuel larger and larger herbivorous body types. This is because although the plant is less efficient at extracting CO2, it's more efficient using the oxygen it gets, because less of its internal structure is dedicated to the extraction process and more to the growth process.

What I'm getting at here is that it's kind of obvious that there is always going to be more CO2 in the atmosphere than plants are using; this is because at any point, the system is looking for an equilibrium that has to include a certain concentration in the atmosphere. What is important is the partial pressure; if the partial pressure of CO2 is much higher, plants need less work to extract it from the air and are therefore more productive.

If the CO2 concentration in our atmosphere remains high, then plants will probably swing back to the less-efficient but more-productive plant types.

That's not to say that pumping CO2 the way we're doing is a good thing; doubling the amount of CO2 over a hundred years is way to fast to induce the sort of evolutionary switchover described. An environment that changes too fast will do that, and so it's still very important to reduce our emissions and clean up our atmosphere. I'm just saying he's not wrong that, in the long term, a higher partial pressure of CO2 won't result in larger, more productive plants.

Sorry, too be clear, I'm saying that our CO2 emissions represent an acute danger to our global environment, but not one that the environment can't adapt to.

It's just that the adaptation would take much longer than any of our lifetimes or even the lifetimes of our current governments, and in the meantime, the climate change, sea level changes, weather pattern changes, etc, would wreak havoc with our way of life and the environment. My pointing out it could all work out in the end doesn't really mean much, because "the end" is a long, long ways away.

Great post. Personally, possibly because I'm such a big tech geek, I strongly believe in the power of new technologies to solve this problem. But I think that's also the way you have to look at it. People aren't going to do things that significantly adversely affect their quality of life until the problem is a disaster, and for this problem in particular, that will be too late. So we have to give them a way to have their cake and eat it, too. We have to keep working on way to generate energy cleanly and use it more efficiently. There's so much energy wasted today that we can easily keep our cars and air conditioners and massive datacenters and all the rest of it without the emissions that it all generates today. ecogeek is a decent blog on this sort of stuff, if anyone is interested, and only one if the ways I use to try to keep up on clean tech news.

2 quick questions - First, how much energy would be required to break C02 down again to C and O (obviously, a lot compared to the ease of creating CO2, but what do I know...I failed chemistry); second, is there a clean and economically viable way to do that?

I agree with BenHead, in that the majority of people don't care about the environment until it personally affects them, where it is then too late. And, if it is a global problem, it needs a global solution. The US cannot be responsible for all of the effort while China and India undo all of our work.

I've been giving a lot of thought lately to living roof systems, which I hope to have on my next home. This gets just a tad outside of the CO2 level discussion because I think about it more in terms of battling the "heat island" effect. But, it is relevant in terms of building up natural CO2 scrubbers in areas where there is nothing but concrete as far as the eye can see. Imagine what NYC would look like from space if the roof tops of the large buildings were covered in mossy or grassy growth. Feasible? I don't know...but I like that idea.

On a more irritated note, how about if we start to recognize that the human race no longer needs to keep breeding like degenerate jack rabbits. We aren't building family empires anymore, and we don't need 13 children to work the family farm these days. We don't need 4 children, either. 3 is really pushing it. I think urban sprawl and the energy required to sustain it is one of the most easily identifiable problems. Is there a politically correct way to address that problem? I don't think so...so, is there any way at all to address that problem?


Large scale, figuring out how to take carbon out of the atmosphere and bury it in the earth is the inverse of mining coal and oil. I don't think there is a economically viable way of doing it, clean or unclean.

Re living roofs, the scrubbed CO2 would need to be sequestered long term for it to be a useful in addressing the CO2 increases--consider of taking all the grass clippings or moss trimmings and burying them in a subduction zone or perhaps creating a peat bog instead of composting them or turning them into a biofuel which would recycle the carbon quickly. For carbon sequestration purposes, the numbers would be insignificant, you'd probably get more benefit out of reduced heating/cooling load and attendant energy savings.

As to politically correct solutions to the problem? I don't think so either--the haves will develop technological solutions to outsource the worst effects of the problem to the have-nots. Doubling the cost of food production to accommodate climate change will have dire consequences for the billion or so people who are already direly undernourished.

Only some of the people are getting the cake right now, and if we try to let them eat their cake too, the prognosis for the rest of the world looks pretty grim.

You have a picture of a nuclear power plant representing CO2 emissions...?

Cooling towers aren't nuclear-plant-specific, although they have become iconic of nuclear power plants.

Call me a pessimist but I don't think anything will be done about it . People by and large will do nothing and will not care about this issue until it affects them in more than an abstract sort of way .

Even if every single person in the U.S. went totally green tomorrow , thier efforts would be eclipsed by the developing world ( China and India Esp. )in short order .

Eventually this problem will take care of itself by taking care of us .

By Tyson Bodin (not verified) on 28 Jul 2009 #permalink

@Dave X #4: I suspect that's the way things will go. Although large corporations (including many oil companies) are investing large amounts of money in alternative energy reearch, the existing economic framework dictates that they really shouldn't be so concerned about that and should focus on the best returns they can provide to stockholders in the short term. The only way to sell a larger expenditure to the board is to convince them of other short term benefits such as tax breaks or other government contributions (currently insignificant). Governments will not spend huge amounts of money to focus on research either because "that's the role of industry". It's a standoff. We only have about 70 years more of oil (and maybe 100 years of gas) so if nothing is done now we're screwed. Technology will not miraculously appear overnight.

as for #10: CO2 is not a problem which can be "outsourced". Some EU nations like Germany are significantly subsidizing the construction of hydroelectric plants in China due to faulty EU policies on CO2 reduction; these subsidies are having no significant impact on CO2 reduction. CO2 emitted in China will not stay in China - nasty thing these gases, they don't give a shit about anyone's laws. China is still opening (not commisioning, opening) new coal-fired plants every week; every month there's effectively another 20M tons per annum added to the CO2 budget.

@Brett: CO2 is a chemical dead-end. Plants recycle it although extremely inefficiently. Chemists can recycle it somewhat, also extremely inefficiently, by converting to formaldehyde and then converting to other chemicals. Plants just need sunshine, favorable temperatures, and water. Chemists need huge amounts of energy and various other chemicals which need constant replenishment so a (human produced) chemical process is not going to be a viable solution.

@Susan: That is definitely not a nuke plant. The funnel-shaped towers are cooling towers which condense stem back into water which is returned to the boilers while the more slender tubular towers are the exhaust stacks for the boiler. A nuke station would not have exhaust stacks.

@Tyson Bodin: At the moment it sure looks like it will go that way. When you tell politicians about the threat to the civilization they grew up in, they just go "La la la! I can't hear you!" No one wants to believe that cities like New York will look something like the New York in Planet of the Apes; oh no, that can't happen to us! So people choose to be ignorant rather than face a daunting threat. Nature doesn't care about our fantasies though; nature will do what it will.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 28 Jul 2009 #permalink

Sorry, I didn't mean to imply that CO2 itself would be outsourced, like the poisoning due to recycling electronics, just that some folks will buy their way to the best lives they can afford at the expense of others. Rather than work to raise the median standard of living, they will burn the world down faster as long as they can move up the curve. What kind of -archy is government by Pyrrhic-victors?

Dang. I recently read Derrick Jensen's "What we leave behind", and this post of yours brings out the depressive doomer in me.

@Dave X: That's the "business as usual" scenario and it's what is going on at the moment. There is also the real (and already demonstrated) danger that people will fall for feel-good practices that don't do any actual good, such as the "carbon offsets" which some airlines offer passengers or the weird EU schemes that have resulted in subsidizing Chinese hydro plants.

I wouldn't get depressed; our generation won't see the worst of things. I think working on solutions will be challenging and thrilling, but I doubt governments will put any significant resources into developing solutions until catastrophes affect major cities and it is far too late to do much good. Most people are accustomed to reacting to a problem after the fact rather than foreseeing problems and preparing.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 28 Jul 2009 #permalink

that isn't nuclear power plant in the picture. there are a couple smokestacks that a nuclear facility wouldn't need. the large buildings in back look like the type of building where the coal fired furnaces would be. also if you right click to save the photo, the default filename is "coal-power-plant."

one more thing: the "smoke" coming out of the cooling towers is water vapor--it don't contribute much CO2 to the atmosphere...


@rob: the water vapour won't effect the CO2 levels but I think it does effect global warming. I remember reading somewhere that H2O was as much a problem as methane, although I might be remembering wrong there.

I hate to add a little perspective to the usual greenhouse warming hype but...

I want you to consider, for one moment, a large volcanic eruption. e.g. Vesuvius. Krakatoa. We're talking colossal amounts of CO2 here. One good eruption can easily dwarf everything we've spewed out for decades. It's also not a matter of if such an eruption will happen again, but when.

You want climate change? Look no further than mega-eruptions. The changes produced by global warming will be so gradual that we'll have time to react. Loads of time. It's not as if those artic glaciers melting will suddenly unleash a tsunami! Human ingenuity is such that a disaster has to be both sudden and geographically widespread to truly overwhelm civilization. A large meteor strike is one possible way to do this, but they are astronomically improbable compared to mega-eruptions.

A mega-eruption, aside from the expected sudden but relatively localized destruction, would greatly reduce global agricultural yields for a period of years or decades. Unlike a meteor strike, there is a significant chance of a mega-eruption in our lifetimes. There have been several in recorded history, and they had measureable impacts on human civilization back when we were nowhere near the carrying capacity of the planet.

I don't mean to be the gloomy sort, but the hysterics over global warming really are just that. Hysterical. Yes, it's a problem that we should solve, but it should actually be somewhat lower on our list of priorities.

By random_nutter (not verified) on 31 Jul 2009 #permalink


By "collosal amounts" you mean hundreds of millions of tonnes of CO2. That is peanuts compared to just what the United States does every year.

The average CO2 emission from all volcanoes worldwide is around 130 million tonnes. Per year. Throw in a huge, mega-volcano, like Toba, which happens once every 100,000 years or so (Class 8, or "mega-colossal"), and that puts you up around 11 million tonnes of CO2 per day, or around 4 billion tonnes per year.

Now, look up. We've been producing more than 4 billion tonnes per year every year since before World War II! In terms of Carbon Dioxide, even the most destructive volcanoes in all of natural history have nothing on human industrialization. And the science backs that up.

1. Don't think much of the AGW argument.
2. Attacking the problem with no/low carbon energy production makes sense even if the CO2=warming idea is bankrupt, coal is bad news in so many other ways than just CO2.
Give China and India energy tech that is cleaner and less expensive than coal, they'll switch.

the AGW argument

AGW is not an argument, it is science and it is what is testably happening. See for example the IPCC report summarizing current climate science.

I don't give much for article's "the facts" argument, however. People are trying to assess the risks and the costs, but using a too long economical planning horizon is AFAIU non-rational. (As the players "optimal rational" strategies starts to diverge.) Unless there is a real, quantifiable, testable risk-cost model we can't do better than continue as before, using resources optimally for human benefit.

By Torbjörn Lars… (not verified) on 03 Aug 2009 #permalink

That's why someone should have listened to Tesla. he know this way in advance and saw the problems we are facing today.

By TIM PARSONS (not verified) on 08 Sep 2009 #permalink

"So, you've got the facts now. What do you think we should do about it? And how can we make it happen?"

Yes, this article outlines "facts" that make not a damn difference to God nor man. What should we do? Race towards the day that we have added TWICE as much Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere as there was Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere when we started. Remember: burning fossil fuels = economic prosperity!

this is not real

I think the film remembered me about the world in the future.
the God that have the world and we that must keep the world, because we that lived into this world

By rovy yanti (not verified) on 02 Dec 2009 #permalink


thank you for the Astrophysicist's view on our history of CO2 levels-I really enjoyed it. Any way you cut it we have work to do-the smarter the better.

Hi Ethan,

I'm working on the geomechanical aspects of Co2 storage as a climate change mitigation option and am just wondering if I can use the photo of the coal power plant you posted in one of my presentation?

Please let me know.

Many thanks,

It is very good to clear us abut the industrial civilization

By pratik amale (not verified) on 14 Sep 2010 #permalink

Wow That is great info! Thanks!

By Esrom Negam (not verified) on 06 Jun 2013 #permalink