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Record high for global carbon emissions

3rd December 2012

Global CO2 emissions are projected to rise again in 2012, reaching a record high of 35.6 billion tonnes annually. This is 58 per cent above 1990 levels, the baseline year for the Kyoto Protocol.


carbon emissions


This latest analysis by the Global Carbon Project was published yesterday in the journal Nature Climate Change with full data released simultaneously by the journal Earth System Science Data Discussions.

It shows the biggest contributors to global emissions in 2011 were China (28 per cent), the USA (16 per cent), the European Union (11 per cent) and India (7 per cent).

Emissions in China and India grew by 9.9 and 7.5 per cent in 2011, while those of the United States and the European Union decreased by 1.8 and 2.8 per cent.

Emissions per person in China of 6.6 tonnes of CO2 were nearly as high as those of the European Union (7.3), but still below the 17.2 tonnes of carbon used in the United States. Emissions in India were lower at 1.8 tonnes of carbon per person.

Prof Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and professor at UEA, led the publication of the data. She said: "These latest figures come amidst climate talks in Doha. But with emissions continuing to grow, it’s as if no-one is listening to the entire scientific community.”

More than 1,000 coal-fired power plants are currently planned worldwide, with the majority being constructed in China and India. The 2012 rise further opens the gap between real-world emissions and those required to keep global warming below the international target of two degrees.

"I am worried that the risks of dangerous climate change are too high on our current emissions trajectory. We need a radical plan," added Prof Corinne Le Quéré.

The analysis published in Nature Climate Change shows that major emission reductions are needed by 2020 to keep two degrees as a feasible goal. Even this two degree limit may not be enough to save coral reefs, as reported in September.


global warming timeline


The report shows previous energy transitions in Belgium, Denmark, France, Sweden and the UK have led to emission reductions as high as 5 per cent each year over decade-long periods, even without climate policy.

Lead author Dr Glen Peters, of the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Norway, said: “Scaling up similar energy transitions across more countries can kick-start global mitigation with low costs. To deepen and sustain these energy transitions in a broad range of countries requires aggressive policy drivers.”

Co-author Dr Charlie Wilson, of the Tyndall Centre at UEA, added: “Public policies and institutions have a central role to play in supporting the widespread deployment of low carbon and efficient energy-using technologies, and in supporting innovation efforts”.

Emissions from deforestation and other land-use change added 10 per cent to the emissions from burning fossil fuels. The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere reached 391 parts per million (ppm) at the end of 2011.

These results lend further urgency to reports from other organisations in recent weeks – including the International Energy Agency, the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Bank, the European Environment Agency, and PricewaterhouseCoopers – warning that emissions pathways are already dangerously high and could lead to 6°C (11°F) of global warming by 2100.

In the journal Elsevier, a study last month found that scientists, frequently accused by the media of alarmism:

"... are in fact biased not toward alarmism, but rather the reverse: toward cautious estimates, where we define caution as erring on the side of less rather than more alarming predictions."

One such example is Arctic sea ice, which is undergoing a spectacular decline in volume, exceeding the worst case projections from just a few years previously.

In related news, a report from UNEP states that permafrost carbon feedback will not be included in the IPPC Fifth Assessment Report, due for publication in 2014. This is despite 850 billion tons of carbon known to be stored in Arctic permafrost – roughly the level of carbon already stored in the atmosphere today. Much of this carbon could be released in the form of methane, which is 25 times as potent a heat-trapping gas as CO2.


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