Climate Primer #13: Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions – 1. The Energy Sector

To summarize, climate crisis is the defining issue of the century. Buildup of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs) in Earth’s atmosphere is driving global heating, while a convergence of global crises threatens to rupture key planetary boundaries beyond which organized human life on Earth would be threatened. Although the human activities which drive these converging crises (for simplicity: the climate crisis) are diverse and complex, the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offers a high level categorization of the sources of anthropogenic emissions.

Following AR5’s schema, today’s post focuses on the largest source of anthropogenic GHG emissions, the energy sector, which, according to the IPCC, contributed 35% of anthropogenic GHG emissions in 2010. In the spirit of continuing to try to keep these primers as simple as possible, I offer here the following helpful chart from the World Resources Institute that breaks down the component emissions sources which constitute the energy sector as defined by the IPCC:


As you can see, not only does the energy sector include the production of electricity and heat through the combustion of fossil fuels (note: “Autoproducers” are plants that produce electricity or heat for private consumption, as in the case of a university or a factory running its own power plant), but also the manufacturing and production of fossil fuels; the transportation (think pipelines, trains, tanker trucks, the mid-size tanker ships that ply constantly the waters around New York City, or the larger tanker ships that occasionally spill, catastrophically, for example off the coast of Alaska in 1989 or, without preventive action, off the coast of Yemen in the coming months) of fossil fuels [The WRI document on which I relied seems actually to be in reference to a dated IPCC “Common Reporting Framework”; see below for details]; other instances of fuel combustion, both of fossil fuels and of biomass; and the “Fugitive Emissions” that occur in the extraction, refinement, and transportation of fossil fuels. Interestingly, on this last front, during the decade or more when the popular lie was current that natural gas was a “sustainable” “bridge fuel” the use of which could allow for an accelerated transition away from reliance on coal (a lie that was peddled by a number of the “Big Green” orgs, like the Sierra Club), the failure to account for the massive fugitive emissions of methane that have accompanied the shift, in the US, from coal to natural gas combustion in electricity generation led to very optimistic accounting of comparative GHG emissions. Data now suggest that the net benefit from shifting coal to natural gas was relatively limited, at best, because the fugitive emissions from fracking, refining, piping, etc. natural gas are so substantial, but in the meantime, a decade was wasted, a lot of expensive soon-to-be-stranded assets were constructed, and a lot of money was made.

Today’s bonus content is sad but, to those who are interested, I hope will prove helpful: The tanker currently stranded off Yemen’s coast apparently contains roughly 1.1 million barrels of oil, while the Exxon Valdez spilled roughly one quarter of a million barrels of oil off (and onto) the Alaskan coast in 1989. Meanwhile, in what Wikipedia suggests “was called by some scientists the worst environmental disaster ever in Mauritius,” in recent weeks a Japanese bulk carrier has dumped some 10,000 barrels of oil into the waters surrounding that island nation. Closer to home (for me), every day, dozens of similar vessels, belonging to companies like Reinauer, can be spotted in the waters of the Hudson, the East River, and New York Harbor.

Correction: The dated IPCC Common Reporting Framework to which the WRI (and thus I) referred in fact includes the entire (fossil-fuel dependent) transport sector as a subset of the energy sector, so my characterization above is in error. Here are further details from the IPCC’s Revised 1996 Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories:


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