Collapse and Climate

2009 December 15
by Chris Vernon

This is a follow-up to the post on a 2008 CO2 emission peak. We are told that to have a 50/50 chance of limiting the temperature rise to 2 °C, emissions need to peak within 10 years. However it seems they already have, as a result of the global recession.

Just to illustrate how significant the economy is for CO2 emissions consider the collapse of the Soviet Union. This can be thought of as a wholesale economic collapse, not war, famine, plague, natural disaster – economic collapse.

I generated the following chart from here, a rather neat little Google app that compares CO2 emission rates per capita from all the world’s countries. Have a play.


Over the space of around five years, the emission rates fell by at least a third and in many cases a half. In no case has recovery from the minima reached the 1990, pre-collapse peak.

If today’s global economy was to undergo a similar wholesale economic collapse, we could expect similar declines in global greenhouse gas emissions. Without doubt, such an economic collapse would be associated with enormous hardship, but it might just be able to deliver a relatively stable climate for coming generations.

Climate change is a long term problem, the ramifications of dangerous climate change are likely to persist for millennia (impacts won’t stop at 2100 like many of the charts do!). Is the catastrophic collapse of today’s civilisation worth the long term protection of the climate?

It’s easy to answer no to that question, catastrophic collapse would be a catastrophe. However consider what has happened in the past. The loss of Egyptian civilisation, the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the Mayan collapse in 900 AD. All reached great heights but collapsed. Looking back now, we don’t even consider these collapses to be tragedies, we don’t remember the deaths, the human suffering, the loss etc. It’s ‘just history’.

If our current civilisation were to undergo complete economic collapse with all the tragedy, suffering and lost that would entail, what would our distant ancestors 2000 years from now remember? Would it just be another chapter in the history text? If the alternative is a climate change triggered sixth mass extinction event, maybe just making sure there is a history text 2000 years from now is worth the loss of today’s civilisation?

6 Responses leave one →
  1. December 17, 2009

    The leaked UN document just published by the Guardian presumably does not give sufficient consideration to supply-side?

    “Confidential UN analysis shows that if the current offers on the table at the Copenhagen climate summit are agreed, global temperatures will rise on average by 3C”

    Guardian link

  2. Chris permalink*
    December 17, 2009

    There could be a supply-side consideration. Look at the offered cuts each country is making. Big difference. Is there a correlation between offered cuts and vulnerability to fossil fuel supply-side shocks?

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