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Peak Carbon

When I write my column for Environmental Leader each month, I’m pretty conservative with the facts and ideas that I use. But this month I’m throwing out an idea that’s, at best, half-baked, and then I’m going farther out on a limb and making a prediction based on it. I’m doing this because I think the idea is important, and I’m increasingly convinced that the prediction will be true. (Apologies if someone else has been talking up this idea — I’ve been searching for it but may have just missed it.)

I call the idea “Peak Carbon.” Like “Peak Oil,” Peak Carbon implies that GHG emissions will, at some point, top out, and then trend downward until we stop needing to worry about them. But unlike Peak Oil, Peak Carbon is a good thing. And while Peak Oil is driven only by supply, Peak Carbon is driven by supply (e.g. Peak Oil, Peak Coal, etc.) as well as changes in behavior, legislation and technical substitution (e.g. solar replaces coal).

(Author’s Note: I often criticize others for being imprecise and using “carbon” when they mean “carbon dioxide” or “green house gas,” but since I’ve already thrown caution to the wind, I’m going to violate my own rule and misuse the word “carbon” since it sounds better.)

Formally, here’s my proposed definition: Peak Carbon is the point in time after which GHG emissions shrink each year, until the future point in time when we deem our emissions levels to be safe. GHG emissions will be measured by CO2 equivalents and with a five-year moving average.

This definition needs to be cleaned up a little bit (especially how we deal with the average right around the peak), but hopefully you can see the idea: after Peak Carbon, the emissions shrink year over year until we’re not worried anymore. I’ve thrown in a five year average in order to account for one-year blips due to extreme weather or other external factors. Also, I’m ignoring offsets of any kind — I want real emissions reductions.

Some of you may say that’s interesting, but its the rate of the decrease that’s important, and you would be right. But I believe that it will be a major milestone when we start decreasing on a consistent basis, and I think we should formally recognize that we’ve done that.

So, now my prediction: Peak Carbon occurred in the US in 2007.

Yep, I’m predicting that annual GHG emissions in the US will now drop regularly going forward, with only minor setbacks every once in awhile. My rationale is that there are short-term, medium-term and long-term drivers in place which are capable of, together, sustaining reductions over decades:

Short term (next 5 years): During this period the intertwined occurrences of rising oil prices and dampened economic activity will drive down demand, while cost-conscious companies and individuals will make serious effort towards efficiency gains.

Medium term (5-20 years): GHG legislation at state and federal levels will yield results. High oil prices will keep upward cost pressure on all types of energy, dampening demand, but also creating a great economic opportunity for clean energy alternatives. With this opportunity combined with the maturation of some of today’s bleeding edge ideas, decarbonization of US electricity sources will seriously kick into gear in this time frame.

Long term (20+ years): Second and third generation legislation will build on the positive and negative learnings of the first wave. Our electricity will get greener, and we will finally see the innovations and infrastructure needed for major emissions reductions in our transportation system.

Do I have charts and graphs and sources for all of this? Nope, just an educated guess based on everything I’ve seen and read the last few years. So feel free to knock it around and let me know what you think.

Can you come up with a better milestone? A better prediction? How about Peak Carbon for Europe (2004?) or China?

Or better yet, what’s your prediction for Peak Carbon for the Earth?

Surely that will be a milestone to celebrate.

Dave Douglas is Chief Sustainability Officer at Sun Microsystems.

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13 thoughts on “Peak Carbon

  1. I don’t normally make comments, but I just think you’re wrong. I think we’ll see a huge emphasis on liquified coal and oil shale production. Once this global recession goes on for a couple of years and inflation is rampant, environmental standards will be set aside for the sake of cheap (relatively cheaper) energy. We won’t reach Peak Carbon until we reach Peak Population — after the horrific famines and a worldwide decade long economic depression.

  2. Hmm. Peak oil tells us an important inflection in the supply curve for oil. It is important because it implies a direct response (correlation) in things like price, demand response, etc.

    Peak carbon sounds very good. I hope for it in a decade coming real soon. Yesterday would have been great.

    However, my limited understanding of the science of climate change is that, unlike economics, whose elasticity responds to inflections in the supply curve (e.g. slowing of the rate of increase), as well as actual decreases in the supply, the climate may not be so forgiving or able to anticipate future benefits/deficits. With climate change, I think what matters is the level of GHGs, right now.

    So it’s great that we might be taking our foot off the accelerator (if that is indeed true), and it’s certainly good if we do so to such a degree that the total amount of GHG we put in the atmosphere is actually getting smaller. But I fear that the only thing that matters is the total amount of GHG’s right now.

    Sorry for the doggie-downer. But I don’t think peak carbon has as much relevance as peak oil.

    :=(

    Tom

  3. You should stick to being connservative because you are making a specific prediction based on “educated guesses” that you do not share. The concept of peak carbon is a natural one derived from current energy usage. But you make a specific prediction based on what? This is all so very very fuzzy. And warm and fuzzy since US is now on the downward slope of peak carbon. Is this how Sun measures its carbon footprint, based on educated guesses?!

  4. This is a really interesting idea that actually makes sense. My fear is that it will be used against desperately needed new policies. We are already seeing it as an argument for the aviation industry not to regulate, because the market is taking care of it naturally. The reality is that we are talking about a finite resource and a little regulation could help smooth out the wild swings in prices and help drive technological solutions to the inevitable end of fossil fuels. Oh yea, and its good for the environment…

  5. I disagree – When the American people are fully convinced that any and all “carbon” legislation , is a tax to fill business and Gov’t pockets , and kill the consumer , then we will have carbon peak . Al Gores hypocrisy is not helping your cause . Global warming mistruths and outright lies and exclusions of real data , and fudging what real data they have ( for only 50 yrs ) predicting the weather and climate and setting them selves up as “gods” thinking arrogantly that man can effect the weather . Many believe the lie – I do not – others are learning of this scam for what it is . A popular religious scam . Earth worship , man worship . Bill

  6. His math is just as good as the global warming theory. Its all fuzzy math and its not the US you need to worry about its CHINA! more people more cars more inefficient plants wake up!.

  7. Aggregate responses.

    Jim C: you seem to be talking about Peak Carbon globally, in which case we probably agree. In the cases of Peak Carbon in the US, I still believe its happened, even with gradually increasing population.

    Tom H: I agree we need to look at the absolute GHG emissions today, especially since they will be with us in the atmosphere for decades to come. Personally I think its important that we may be topping out in the US, and hope it comes elsewhere asap. That’s the first step to moving to a better level.

    Tom F: This is a prediction based on an aggregation of data. Corporate GHG emissions tracking is an accounting activity based on standards, which we follow carefully, and uses external auditors to help make sure we’re on track (our methodologies are publicly documented in various places). I’m not sure I see the connection between the two.

  8. Dave, Even if your prediction that the US reached ‘Peak Carbon’ in 2007 proves to be true, I question it’s relevance. Unlike Peak Oil which can be constrained to a geographic supply region, Peak Carbon is only relevant on a global basis – we all share in the GHG issues.
    Yes there have been many positive changes in behavior, legislation and technical substitution in the US and this is a start and must continue. I also believe the evolving world economy has a lot to do with perception that the US has reached Peak Carbon. When manufacturing, agriculture and other industries that supply the US market move “off-shore”, their impact on GHG emissions do NOT move off-shore with them. I believe there are still many more fundamental changes needed in the US market before peak carbon to support that market is reached.

  9. I usually don’t comment on this subject, but this realy needs to have some real emperical data behind global warming. There is no evidence for global warming– the Sea levels are Not rising–the temperature is not rising and carbon credits are not worth the paper they are printed on.

  10. I will believe we have reached peak carbon when Al Gore’s personal house has – if the ‘God’ of the environmentals with all of his resources/advisers cannot reach this peak – what chance do I have? I also find it enlightning reading the comments – environmentals, like politicians these days, do not like good news it would appear. Enjoyed the piece.

  11. I find it funny that global temperatures have been dropping since 2001 and people are still listening to these crack pot/wanna be scientists who proclaim the earth is being destroyed. Wake up! 31,000 scientists have signed papers that say they do believe global weather is influenced by GHGs, but the american people believe everything the media says and the media loves a good disaster story. I think history will look back with shame upon Gore and his hysteria that has led to today’s energy prices.

  12. How does the Peak Carbon relation to Peak Oil factor in

    1. the methane escape (10 x more Greenhouse gas impact than CO2) in the Northern tundra caused by Perma frost melt and retreating polar cap?

    2. China opening 1 coal fire power station every week.

    3. Ans surer many other nasties.

    I think there is a long way to go before we peak on carbon or able to stop the natural escape of greenhouse gases that we have instigated.

  13. Useful concept, peak carbon – but I have a slightly different definition to consider: “the point where the rate at which carbon can be sequestered (naturally or artificially) exceeds the rate at which atmospheric carbon is generated”. In other words, it is not a peak in emissions but a peak in atmospheric concentrations. I think that is closer to the definition of peak oil, which is also about the balance between discovery and extraction; and it also brings us closer to the key issue of the impact on ecological systems, since concentrations can continue to increase even when emissions have peaked.

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