Government Science Panel Publishes Report on North America’s Carbon Budget

November 13, 2007

The U.S. Climate Change Science Program published a report today that quantifies North America’s net contribution of carbon to the atmosphere and catalogues sources and sinks of carbon on the continent.

"The North American Carbon Budget and Implications for the Global Carbon Cycle" is the latest report by the CCSP, which will publish 21 reports by the end of 2008.  The report analyzes the amounts of carbon emitted by industry sector, the amount absorbed naturally and how these amounts relate to the global carbon budget influenced by other regions of the globe, with particular attention given to characterizing the certainty and uncertainty with which these budget elements are known. The recently released report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change attributes carbon in the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide and methane as very likely the leading contributor to global warming.

“This information is critical to understanding the factors that shape our global climate,” said Bill Brennan, acting CCSP director and NOAA’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Affairs. “The 21 CCSP reports are designed to help scientists answer key questions about climate change, provide the best possible science to stimulate public discussion and assist decision-making on key climate-related issues.  We now have a comprehensive understanding of how our continent is contributing to greenhouse gases overall.”

The report finds North America’s fossil fuel emissions are greater than 25 percent of global emissions. The conversion of fossil fuels to energy, such as electricity generation, is the single largest carbon contributor, with transportation second. The report details how the growth of vegetation blanketing North America absorbs large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

The report points out a greater than three-to-one imbalance between the fossil fuel sources and the ability of vegetation to absorb carbon.  This results in a net release to the atmosphere (over one gigaton of carbon per year in 2003), but there is still some uncertainty in quantifying the North American sink compared to the carbon emission sources. The carbon absorption by vegetation, primarily in the form of forest growth, is expected to decline as maturing forests grow more slowly and take up less carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Report authors find it unclear how rapidly this carbon storage “sink” will decline and whether it might potentially become a source since changes in climate and atmospheric carbon dioxide could affect forest growth differently in different regions.  Further warming, for example, could exacerbate drought, increasing carbon release through vegetation dieback and increased fire and insect disturbances.

“This report serves an important function beyond being a critical part of the CCSP’s synthesis and assessment structure,” said Tony King, report team lead and staff scientist at the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “It is also the first interagency State of the Carbon Cycle Report, which is a broadly conceived activity designed to provide accurate, unbiased, and policy-relevant scientific information concerning the carbon cycle to a broad range of stakeholders.  It provides a baseline characterization of the North American carbon budget upon which future research and reports can build and refine.”

A variety of local, regional and national policy approaches could affect the overall North American carbon contribution.  These include changing the rates of emissions through energy efficiency improvement and fuel switching, enhancing sinks in vegetation and soil, and implementing carbon capture and geological storage.

Total United States emissions have grown at close to the North American average rate of about 1 percent per year over the past 30 years, but United States per capita emissions have been roughly constant.

The carbon intensity of the United States economy, which is the amount of carbon emitted per dollar of inflation adjusted GDP, has decreased at a rate of about 2 percent per year. The decline in the carbon intensity of the United States’ economy was caused both by increased energy efficiency, particularly in the manufacturing sector, and structural changes in the economy with growing contributions from sectors such as services with lower energy consumption and carbon intensity. The service sector is likely to continue to grow. Accordingly, carbon emissions will likely continue to grow more slowly than GDP.

The extraction of fossil-fuels and other primary energy sources and their conversion to energy products and services, including electricity generation, is the single largest contributor to the North American fossil-fuel source, accounting for approximately 42 percent of North American fossil emissions in 2003.

Electricity generation is responsible for the largest share of those emissions: approximately 94 percent in the United Sates in 2004, 65 percent in Canada in 2003, and 67 percent in Mexico in 1998. These are the latest years for which data are available.

More than half of the electricity produced in North America is consumed in buildings, making that single use one of the largest factors in North American emissions.  In the United States, 67 percent is used in buildings.

In 2003, the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from energy consumed in United States buildings alone were greater than total carbon dioxide emissions of any country in the world except China. Energy use in buildings in the United States and Canada, including the use of natural gas, wood, and other fuels as well as electricity, has increased by 30 percent since 1990, corresponding to an annual growth rate of 2.1 percent.

In the United States, the major drivers of energy consumption in the buildings sector are growth in commercial floor space and increase in the size of the average home. Carbon emissions from buildings are expected to grow with population and income.

The report also characterizes in detail the uncertainty associated with these findings. Variability in physical processes, measurement error, and sampling error all contribute to uncertainty in quantifying elements of the North American carbon budget.

Authors were drawn from the broad scientific community and included scientists and researchers from academia, not-for-profit organizations, and governmental agencies. In addition, the process of developing this report involved stakeholders from various sectors who have an interest in managing carbon in the future.  “Through this process, we are striving to ensure that the most relevant information about the carbon cycle is presented in a useful format for decision makers,” said Lisa Dilling, assistant professor at University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-lead of the author team.

All CCSP synthesis and assessment products are written as reports to U.S. Congress. Members of Congress have been briefed on the findings in Synthesis and Assessment Product 2.2. Also, all finalized synthesis and assessment products are signed by the secretaries of commerce and energy, as well as the president’s science advisor.  National Air and Space Administration, NOAA, Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Geological Survey provided funding for the report and/or support for federal agency authors in the development of SAP 2.2.  NOAA served as the lead agency for 2.2 for CCSP and administered the review, publication, and release of the report. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, is celebrating 200 years of science and service to the nation. From the establishment of the Survey of the Coast in 1807 by Thomas Jefferson to the formation of the Weather Bureau and the Commission of Fish and Fisheries in the 1870s, much of America's scientific heritage is rooted in NOAA.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of our nation's coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, more than 70 countries and the European Commission to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.