The International Energy Agency (IEA) released estimates on Monday showing that CO2 emissions have soared to record highs after a lull in 2009 due to the global recession. 30.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide where emitted into the atmosphere in 2010, mostly from burning fossil fuels, a rise of 1.6 gigatons over 2009 according to estimates from the IEA, and up 5 percent over 2008 emissions.
Though the drop in 2009 emissions is generally attributed to the economic downturn, but at the drop in emissions was greater than the decline of GDP, at least in the United States, suggesting that gains in efficiency might be "decoupling" energy consumption from economic growth - an essential element for future economic and environmental sustainability.
But that hope appears to be dashed with the IEA most recent emissions estimates.
Climate scientists warn that avoiding "potentially dangerous climate change" requires limiting global temperatures to within a 2 degree Celsius rise this century, something that IEA chief economist Fatih Birol says is now likely just a "nice Utopia."
"I am very worried. This is the worst news on emissions," Birol said. "It is becoming extremely challenging to remain below 2 degrees. The prospect is getting bleaker. That is what the numbers say."
In the IEA's 2010 World Energy Outlook (pdf) set a pathway to a 2 degree Celsius rise with its 450 Scenario by limiting carbon emissions to 450 parts per million through century's end. The scenario is based on emissions targets to which nations pledge to reach only by 2020. Given the current rate of emissions, those targets could be met within as little as two years. For the targets outlined in the 450 Scenario to be met, emissions will have to rise less in the next decade than they did between 2009 and 201o. Without a change to the current trajectory, there is little choice but to shift the burden of signinifcant emissions reduction onto future generations, when it will be even more difficult to achieve under worsening climactic conditions.
"Our latest estimates are another wake-up call,” saidBirol. “The world has edged incredibly close to the level of emissions that should not be reached until 2020 if the 2ºC target is to be attained. Given the shrinking room for maneuver in 2020, unless bold and decisive decisions are made very soon, it will be extremely challenging to succeed in achieving this global goal agreed in Cancun.”
The situation is make even more difficult because much of the energy sector has already "locked in" 80 percent of its 2020 emissions from plants already in operation or currently under construction. Most of these plants will burn fossil fuels, virtually guaranteeing that 2020 targets will never be met.
Economist Nicholas Stern from the London School of Economics, author of the 2006 Stern Report on climate change, warns that the latest numbers from the IEA combined with projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show a 50 percent chance that global temperature could rise by as much as 4 degrees Celsius by 2100 - double what is generally considered "safe."
"Such warming would disrupt the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across the planet, leading to widespread mass migration and conflict," Stern said. "That is a risk any sane person would seek to drastically reduce."
Birol still hangs to some hope that a climate disaster can be avoided, but the door is fast closing.
"If we have bold, decisive and urgent action, very soon, we still have a chance of succeeding," he said.
That's exactly what I heard nearly two years ago in Copenhagen.
- Global CO2 Emissions in 2010 Hit Highest Level Ever (scientificamerican.com)
- Record carbon emissions mean 2 °C rise ever closer (newscientist.com)
- Carbon Levels Skyrocketing (planetsave.com)