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28th September 2014

Humanity on track for worst-case emissions scenario

Worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide continue to outpace reduction measures, putting the world on course for a worst-case scenario later in the 21st century.


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This week, the United Nations hosted the Climate Summit 2014 in New York City. Prior to the conference, an estimated 400,000+ people took part in the People's Climate March, the largest ever protest of its kind. The summit opening featured an impassioned speech from actor Leonardo DiCaprio — pleading for world leaders to address the looming crisis and stating: "You can make history, or you will be vilified by it."

Despite rapid growth in clean tech, emissions continue to trend at the high end of scenarios, eroding the chances to keep warming below the recommended limit of 2°C. In 2013, the total output of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion and cement production grew by 2.3 per cent to a record high of 36.1 billion tonnes. This year, emissions are set to increase by a further 2.5%, 65 per cent higher than the 1990 level. Globally, August 2014 was the hottest August on record, according to data from NOAA. This follows the hottest May and June also this year. As greenhouse gases continue to build in the atmosphere and oceans, the world appears to be heading for a genuine catastrophe unless immediate, large-scale action is taken.

In its yearly analysis of trends in global carbon emissions, the Global Carbon Project (GCP) has published three peer-reviewed articles, highlighting a number of recent developments. Among the findings are that China's emissions per head of population have now surpassed the EU for the first time, reaching 7.2 tonnes per person, compared to the EU's 6.8 tonnes. India is also forecast to overtake Europe's CO2 output by 2019.

“China continues to reshape the global distribution of emissions, and as politics impedes significant progress in the US and other key countries, observers increasingly look to China to provide a breakthrough in climate negotiations”, says Glen Peters, a co-author of the studies.

On current trends, the remaining "carbon budget" to surpass 2°C of global warming will be used up in around 30 years (one generation). This quota implies that over two-thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves – amounting to nearly a trillion tonnes – will have to remain in the ground.

“Globally, emissions would need sustained and unprecedented reductions of around 7%/year for a likely chance to stay within the quota”, says Peters. “Furthermore,” he adds, “because of differentiated capabilities, some countries would need even higher rates of emissions reductions. These rates have not been seen in any individual country outside of severe economic crises.”



The ability to keep temperatures below 2°C depends on three things: uncertainties in the climate system, when deep and sustained mitigation starts, and rapid development of new technologies.

Robbie Andrew from the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO) in Oslo, Norway: “Most scenarios consistent with 2°C used in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report largely depend on carbon capture and storage, both from fossil-fuel combustion and, particularly, bioenergy.”

But the development and deployment of CCS technologies has not lived up to expectations.

“Today’s emission-reduction targets need to incorporate the risk that society is unable to commercially develop and rapidly deploy a technology that is so far largely unproven at the required scale”, says Peters. “If carbon capture and storage technologies are not realised, it may not be possible to keep the temperature increase below 2°C.”

There were some positive outcomes at the New York summit this week. A pledge was made by governments, multinational companies and campaigners to halve the rate of deforestation by 2020 and halt it completely by 2030, alongside restoring 1.35 million sq miles (3.5 million sq km) of degraded land, an area the size of India. It is estimated that this could save between 4.5 and 8.8 billion tonnes of carbon emissions per year by 2030 – the equivalent of taking all of the world’s cars off the road. More than 70 countries and 1,000 companies endorsed the idea of mechanisms to reflect the true costs of emissions and other forms of pollution. The Rockefeller family also announced a divestment of some $50bn (£31bn) in fossil fuel assets.

Next year's climate summit, hosted in Paris, will be seen as crucial to making progress. According to the organising committee, the 2015 conference will attempt to achieve – for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations – a legally binding and universal agreement on carbon emissions, from all the nations of the world. Implementation will follow in 2020 if successful.


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