Archive for the ‘Academic’ category

Share of CO2 emissions by country (2015)

Share of annual carbon emissions

A recent post looked at the growth in emissions among major economic categories since 1960. It’s obvious from this graph that some countries have climbed high on the global emissions ladder. But how high?

The graph shows the annual emissions of the world’s biggest emitters (fossil fuel emissions only). It used to be that the world’s biggest emitters were all developed countries. Today, five of the ten biggest emitters are in the developing world: China, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. And of these, China is the absolute largest, releasing more than a quarter of all global CO2 emissions every year. Since its population is so large — around 1.3 billion — its relative emissions are not among the greatest, but its absolute contribution makes China an essential part of any solution to global warming. For comparison, India, with an equally large population, is only responsible for about 6 per cent of emissions. Africa, almost as big, is responsible for less than 4 per cent. Japan, with only a tenth of the population of all of Africa, emits roughly the same. And Saudi Arabia, with a population of less than 30 million, still manages to emit about 1.7 per cent of all global emissions, thanks to its extreme oil dependence. One other slice of the doughnut begs for an explanation: the one labelled “Bunkers”. This counts emissions from international shipping and aviation (which uses what’s called “bunker fuels”), since it can be difficult to determine which country should be responsible (the shipper, the receiver, countries transited through, the flag country?).

Emissions for major categories (1960-2015)

Where do emissions come from?

There are two powerful stories in this chart. One is about growth. The other is about inequality.

The last few decades have witnessed a global emissions arms race. It has been a race to prosperity, lifting billions of people out of poverty and into comfortable homes and comfortable lives. This is good. But this prosperity has been built mainly on the foundation of fossil fuels. The result has been a runaway increase in CO2 emissions; the main cause of global warming, and as a consequence, climate change.

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CO2 emissions per person (2014)

Worst emission offenders

There is more than one way to count your carbon. One way is to consider the relative CO2 emissions of countries — that is, their emissions divided by their population. This graph isn’t a representation of all the top emitters, but a cross-section pulling out some of the more important countries from top to bottom. It shows a striking differences in carbon dependence.

At the top end of the scale, Saudi Arabia’s economy produces almost 20 tonnes of CO2 of per inhabitant every year. Multiplied by its population, and this country of only 30 million is responsible for more nearly 1.7 per cent of all global emissions. The United States, however, is not far behind, at 16.5 tonnes, and with its population of 330 million, it is also a very large contributor in absolute terms. Canada too is up there among the worst carbon offenders, made possible by its high dependence on oil, gas and coal to fuel its industry, drive its transportation networks and heat homes. Many other notable carbon profligate countries were emitted from this graphic, including countries like Japan, Australia and Russia. The highest emissions per capita in the world actually belong to Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Qatar’s emission rate is staggering: nearly 40 tonnes of emissions per person per year. And though their populations are small, together they still produce more than 1 per cent of all annual emissions.

In the middle of the scale, the European Union’s emissions of only 6.4 tonnes per inhabitant seems modest in comparison. Even China has surpassed the Europeans, though its large population puts it firmly in first place among the world’s biggest emitters. And at the bottom of the scale, we have Sub-Saharan Africa and India, both with more than 1.2 billion people. Most Africans and Indians go without the things that put the Western world, China and the Arab states high on the list, like home electricity, airconditioning, personal transportation and economies based in part on heavy industry. If they want to acquire these things — as is their right — the rest of the world has an obligation to ensure that they can do it without increasing their emisisons.

Global GHG emissions by sector

Emissions by category

Where exactly do greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from? That’s what the graphic above tells us. And it shows that emissions do not necessarily come from the places we might think. Transportation, for example, is the most visible (and pungent) form of carbon pollution in the lives of most people today, so it stands to reason that it’s also responsible for a lot of emissions. Stinking gasoline and diesel fuelled cars and trucks clog our roads and pollute our cities, and oil companies have to shoulder much of the blame for the unfolding climate calamity. But on the global scale, it’s a surprisingly small share of total pollution — only 14% (a different post will look at the distribution in Canada, the US and perhaps the EU).

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Global CO2 emissions 2017

Emissions up in 2017

After declining in 2016, CO2 emissions went back up in 2017. According to estimates from the Global Carbon Project, emissions increased by almost 600 million tonnes, ending up at 41.47 billion tonnes. Emissions had actually decreased in 2016 after flattening out over the last few years, bringing hope that we had finally reached peak carbon pollution, but it was not to be. Still, emissions have only edged up slightly in five years, so there is hope that the curve will finally start to bend downwards. Just as the curve had flattened mostly because of decreasing coal use in China, the Middle Kingdom was also responsible for the increase, with emissions going up by 3.5%, including 3% growth in coal emissions. China has promised to peak its emissions before 2030, but not quite yet it seems. Let’s hope they do it soon.

Source: The Global Carbon Budget 2017, Le Quéré et al., 2017, pp.33-34 (free download)

The global carbon budget (2018)

The Carbon Budget — Living Beyond Our Means

There are good reasons to calculate our carbon budget. The carbon pie shows how much CO2 we’ve got to play with, how much we’ve used and how fast we’re using it. This isn’t a license to pollute, but a warning about how much we have already polluted. As long as we didn’t precisely know how much carbon we could emit, it was easier for those with responsibility to run away from it or push it ahead of them. The carbon pie should be a visceral reminder of how urgent the problem has become and it should compel governments to reflect on what they all need to do to avoid overshooting. The small remaining carbon space no longer allows anyone to continue with business-as-usual.

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Tipping points in the Arctic

When the summer melting season ended in 2007, the icecap floating in the ocean over the North Pole had shrunk to its smallest size ever recorded. According to satellite data, the remaining summer sea ice measured almost forty per cent less than the average for the period of 1979 to 2000. More than one-and-a-half million square kilometres that had been covered with ice the year before was open ocean. The event was a serious confirmation that had been suspected for a while in the scientific community: that the Earth may be prone to abrupt climate change and tipping points. The new science of non-linear change is challenging our notions of what climate change is and when it will occur—and it is utterly alarming.

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Abrupt climate change and geoengineering

Catastrophic or abrupt climate change

We tend to think of climate change as something that happens very slowly, over a very long time. We further tend to think that its more serious effects are still decades away. We are learning now that both assumptions are wrong. While scientists are getting a firmer understanding of how the climate works and how sudden and self-sustaining climatic changes can be triggered, it is becoming clear that climate change is in fact not decades away. For many, it is already here.

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Geoengineering under a climate emergency

Geoengineering under a climate emergency:
Exploring governance pathways and pitfalls

Master research paper. Balsillie School of International Affairs, University of Waterloo, 2010.

After receiving feedback for my master research paper (MRP) in January, 2010, I wrapped up my Master of Arts degree in Global Governance. The only thing left is to actually receive it, which will happen on 17 June.

Here is my MRP, then, finally. The MRP was the major accomplishment of the master, and though it is shorter than a thesis, it still ended up at 70 pages (of text — 92 pages altogether). I wrote about what I was planning to cover in my MRP a year ago, and the final paper isn’t far off the mark, though I chose to de-emphasise securitisation and write more about governance.

I will blog about this topic shortly–give a condensed version of the MRP–but here is the abstract. The paper is available for download in its entirety on the right.


Geoengineering has been advanced as a possible emergency option to sudden and disruptive climate change—a climate emergency. This paper advances the nascent geoengineering governance discourse, looking specifically on issues and challenges relating to how geoengineering can be used as a remedial option in case of a climate emergency.

The main contribution of this paper is the examination of six potential governance alternatives for geoengineering, assessed according to three fundamental characteristics that the paper argues any geoengineering regime must evince, to wit, holism, adaptability and legitimacy. Using path-dependency theory, it further explores how the current parochialism and fragmentation in global governance could affect the long-term development of the geoengineering discourse, before finally looking at how unilateral geoengineering could result from a global discourse on catastrophic climate change gone astray.

High levels of complexity, risk and uncertainty are inherent in both climate change and geoengineering and present substantial obstacles in the development of geoengineering governance. The fundamental question of this paper is how we can foster robust and resilient governance and responses for climate change and other environmental problems.

Geoengineering and the Arctic


Desperate times, desperate measures: Advancing the geoengineering debate at the Arctic Council

I’m pleased to announce that the result of my internship at IISD this summer has been published; my first (real) publication! I worked on it for about a month and a half, and I’m quite pleased with it (if I may say so). It was co-written with Henry David (Hank) Venema, with me as lead author. I owe a lot to Hank, however, who helped me out, jogged my brain circuits, gave me the idea for the paper, and wrote a few crucial paragraphs I was struggling with.

Read the paper:

Abstract and download-page at


The Arctic is like the canary in the coalmine, warning us about the increasing impact of climate change, which is felt first there. In 2007, the Arctic ice cap shrunk to its smallest size ever recorded, 37 per cent below the recorded average. Its abrupt decline, which deviates widely from the largely linear and predictable trend observed over the past few decades, has alarmed the scientific community and suggests we may be closer to a dangerous “tipping point” than previously anticipated. At the same time, economic globalization is coming to this marginalized region at last through increased resource exploitation, leading in turn to further emissions of greenhouse gases and further climate change.

As unsavoury as it may be, this paper will argue that we must investigate geoengineering as an emergency option in case the mitigation regime fails. Given the dramatic consequences of climate change in the Arctic and the role of this region in the global climate, the Arctic countries have a special responsibility to lead this investigation and the debate surrounding it. As the only circumpolar governance forum on environmental issues, the Arctic Council is an obvious venue for this process. The paper explores the state of global geoengineering governance and how it should be constructed, and how the Arctic Council can contribute.

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It’s time for an update about what I’m doing these days. Apart from taking a course in Complex Systems Theory (think Jurassic Park, when Jeff Goldblum is talking about “chaos theory”; it’s in the same alley, though there is a lot more to it) that is really tickling my intellectual fancy, I’ve been working on figuring out what my master research paper (MRP) will be about. I have to write the MRP in the fall of 2009, it has to be original research and about 60 pages in length. Because of my interest in climate change, I have chosen to write about geoengineering. I have been lucky enough to get the support of Dr Thomas Homer-Dixon, formerly of the University of Toronto and author of i.a. “The Upside of Down” and “The Ingenuity Gap“, who will supervise me. Dr Dan McCarthy, my teacher in complex systems, will be my secondary adviser.

What is geoengineering, you might ask

While there is no single and universally agreed-upon definition, suffice it to say here that geoengineering is actively and intentionally attempting to change the global climate (geoengineering is sometimes used to describe geotechnical engineering, which is unrelated). There are two fundamental ways of changing the climate: either control the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2); or, attempt to control the temperature of the Earth directly, through solar radiation management. While the former is almost by definition more benign (depending on how it’s done), the latter is for the most part significantly easier and less costly. It has indeed been calculated that releasing sulphur dioxide (SO2) into the stratosphere—for the purpose of cooling the planet by deflecting sunlight—could cost as little as $30 billion a year using a fleet of Boeing 747s. For the time being, I will leave you to ponder what possible negative consequences that could have (what could possibly go wrong…). I will blog more about geoengineering later.

Excerpts from my MRP proposal:

Why study geoengineering?

While humankind is gaining the technical capability to change the climate and the body of scientific literature about geoengineering is quickly expanding, the political, economical, social and security implications of such a capability are still largely unexplored. Also, the lack of progress in climate change mitigation and the high risks associated with climate change, combined with tremendous uncertainty about how it is going to unfold, give the issue further urgency.

As climate change becomes more pronounced, world leaders, politicians, economists, scientists, newspaper columnists and the wider public may start to demand geoengineering solutions, especially if the climate deteriorates rapidly—a climate emergency. Such an event cannot be ruled out, as we cannot assume that the global climate change trend will be linear or orderly or that the climate models of the IPCC are accurate. However, the potential effects of the various geoengineering schemes on the environment are as poorly understood as the climate itself, while the stakes will be astronomical.

Questions I will ponder:

Primary Question

  1. What are the geopolitical consequences of geoengineering in the event of a climate emergency, and what would be the role of global governance under such a scenario?

Secondary questions

  1. What organisations currently exist that could deal with a climate emergency?
  2. What would be the role of the Security Council (SC)? How could the SC be adapted to cope with the challenge?
  3. Is securitisation of the problem desirable? What are the benefits and drawbacks of this?
  4. What happens if a country, group of countries or a private interest party acts unilaterally? What are the geopolitical ramifications, whether the implicated party is one of a host of undemocratic and poorly governed countries or a member of the Security Council P-5?

Further reading

For a short introduction to geoengineering, I recommend reading the entry for geoengineering in the Encyclopedia of Global Change, written by David Keith, one of the foremost geoengineering scientists.

Link to PDF.