A 733% growth of something insignificant is still tiny

In the process of looking for information for use in previous posts, I came along the website of PBL (Environmental Assessment Agency of the Netherlands). An interesting page was: Trends in global CO2 emissions: 2013 report (with the 2012 data). This is how it starts:

Actual global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) reached a new record of 34.5 billion tonnes in 2012. Yet, the increase in global CO2 emissions in that year slowed down to 1.1% (or 1.4%, not accounting the extra day in the leap year), which was less than half the average annual increase of 2.9% over the last decade. This development signals a shift towards less fossil-fuel-intensive activities, more use of renewable energy and increased energy saving.

Basically, 2012 was the year with the highest emissions ever, but there seem to be a slowdown in which the the use of renewable energy was a factor. My first reaction: “No way!”. The proportion of renewables is really tiny compared to fossil fuels, so I am not really convinced that the current use of renewable energy sources would have a slowing effect on CO2 emissions.

There is also an interactive presentation “Trends in global CO2 that explains it a bit more. More specifically in the slide with the title “Are there signs of change?”. It depicts a field of solar panels to take the message even more home. Below that picture a chart of the share of renewables, low-carbon energy and fossil fuels. First the situation of 1990:

Share of wind and solar increasing 1990. Source: http://infographics.pbl.nl/website/globalco2/

Share of wind and solar 1990. Source: http://infographics.pbl.nl/website/globalco2/

In 1990 the renewable energy sources were almost non-existing compared to the other energy sources.

One could click the 2012 button and then one would see the situation in 2012:

Share of wind and solar increasing 2012. Source: http://infographics.pbl.nl/website/globalco2/

Share of wind and solar 2012. Source: http://infographics.pbl.nl/website/globalco2/

According to the footer there is a 733% growth of renewables, a 41% growth of low-carbon energy and a 51% growth of fossil fuels. On its own, this looks very impressive. But it is also important how big the share was before that growth. Renewables hardly made a dent in 1990. 733% growth of something that was insignificant is still tiny. The fossil fuel circles are much bigger so even the modest increase of 51% will displace much, much more than the skyrocketing 733% increase of the renewables. When we make the difference of the 2012 values compared to the 1990 values we get following increases per group:

Difference 1990-2012 per energy group

Do we really have to believe that this increase in the share of renewables (which is dwarfed by the increase of the fossil fuels) is actually significantly helping in slowing down emissions???


7 thoughts on “A 733% growth of something insignificant is still tiny

  1. manicbeancounter

    I like these graphics. It gives a good visible representation of the relative size of the issue.
    the choices in the “low carbon” group is interesting. The biggest component is wood, which in a ways is worse than coal as a fuel source if you are interested in constraining CO2 emissions. The reason is that trees convert CO2 into oxygen, so chopping down trees is harmful.
    It is also useful to see where future growth in fuel source will come from. Hydro power is being exploited to near its maximum already. Nuclear has lost favour. So the biggest growth will be in fossil fuels. Of these coal and gas have bigger potential for growth than oil.

    Kevin Marshall

    1. trustyetverify Post author

      Hi Kevin

      It was nice meeting you in Bristol. Thanks for passing by and welcome to this little blog.

      I agree with your comments.

      Nice you like the graphics. The last graph was a bit of a challenge because I didn’t found the data, so it was pixel counting in a graphics editor, calculating from that and then drawing the circles relative to each other. But it was rather obvious from the beginning what the result would be. In the process of doing this I found some intriguing things about the way the graphics were made to focus the attention to that renewable circle and distract from the fossil fuel circles. Maybe some more about this in one of the following posts (if something else didn’t grasp my attention in the meanwhile).


  2. Pingback: The Climate Policy Issue Crystallized | ManicBeancounter

  3. manicbeancounter

    Hi Michel
    Another of the graphics caught my attention – the one CO2 emissions split between industrialized and developing countries. A number of sources, such as the Stern Review, have claimed that to prevent “dangerous climate change” the emissions need to be reduced to at least the 1990 levels. The graphic shows that the growth in emissions since then has come from the developing countries.
    As am aside, I would add that the developing countries have around five times the population of the industrialized, so these poorer countries have a lot of catching up to do. India and China alone each have greater populations to the EU, USA and the former communist states combined.

    1. trustyetverify Post author

      Hi Kevin

      True, Asia is just beginning and Africa is looking eager for more reliable energy. Our “decrease” in emissions just dwarfs in the face of the emissions emitted by the developing countries.

      Nice post you had on this issue. I didn’t realize that the old Soviet Union was the most important reason why the developed countries had their decrease of emissions… Nice catch!

  4. icowrich

    I’d like to see an update to this chart. Wind, alone, just surpassed hydropower in November. Combined with solar and biofuel, I’d say that circle is now big enough to be deemed “significant.”

    Also, I would add hydropower to the renewable side.

    1. trustyetverify Post author

      This post was written in 2014 as a reaction to a very specific claim (that the increasing use of renewables somehow made a difference in the slowing down of emissions in 2012) and I then used their own data to show that this claim made no sense (in absolute terms, the increase of renewables was dwarfed by the big increase of low carbon energy use and an even bigger increase of fossil fuels use, so it was very unlikely that this “733% increase” would made much of a difference). An update with different assumptions will not change that specific conclusion. I have the impression you understood the underlying idea of this post a bit differently.


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