After a brief siesta during the recession, global emissions of carbon dioxide are already breaking records again, according to a new analysis by the U.S. Department of Energy. The 2010 data suggest CO2 levels in the atmosphere are now higher than a worst-case scenario predicted four years ago, the Associated Press reports, revealing just how helpless humanity has been in trying to slow down global warming.
Global CO2 emissions totaled more than 9.1 billion metric tons in 2010, up 512 million metric tons from 2009, according to the DOE's Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center. That's a one-year increase of 6 percent, a "monster" jump that's unprecedented in modern history, Appalachian State University geologist and emissions expert Gregg Marland tells the AP. At least half of that spike, Marland adds, can be attributed to extra emissions from the U.S. and China.
"It's a big jump," adds CDIAC Director Tom Boden. "From an emissions standpoint, the global financial crisis seems to be over."
Energy-intensive activities like travel and manufacturing both picked up in 2010, Boden explains, boosting demand for coal, petroleum and natural gas, all of which release CO2 and other greenhouse gases when burned. Coal is the single largest source of carbon emissions worldwide, the AP reports, and it's especially prevalent in China and India. The amount of CO2 from coal-burning industries grew by nearly 8 percent last year alone.
This is partly good news, since it suggests the global economy is recovering, despite ongoing turmoil in Europe and elsewhere. But it's a double-edged sword, MIT climate change expert John Reilly tells the AP, since this economic comeback is still fueled by polluting, nonrenewable resources. "The good news is that these economies are growing rapidly, so everyone ought to be for that, right?" Reilly says. "Broader economic improvements in poor countries have been bringing living improvements to people. Doing it with increasing reliance on coal is imperiling the world."
The new CO2 figures exceed even the worst-case scenario envisioned in 2007 by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which bases its climate forecasts on emissions trends. In its 2007 report, the IPCC projected global temperatures will rise between 4 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, the AP reports.
World leaders will convene in Durban, South Africa, on Nov. 28 for the latest installment of U.N. climate-change talks, a process that has recently devolved into an intractable mess. A long-running rift between developed and developing nations is largely responsible for the impasse, although the AP reports there is a glimmer of progress: Developed nations that ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol have cut their emissions overall in the past decade, according to research by Reilly and University of Victoria climatologist Andrew Weaver, and have also met their goal of reducing emissions to roughly 8 percent below 1990 levels.
That places the onus on developing nations, namely China and India — but also on the developed U.S., which didn't ratify Kyoto and is second only to China in total CO2 emissions. For anything substantial to happen in Durban, or at future U.N. climate summits, those three countries will likely need to reach a binding, multilateral deal that has remained elusive for years. "The more we talk about the need to control emissions, the more they are growing," Reilly says.
Also on MNN:
- Recession axed greenhouse gases in 2009
- Global warming skeptic now agrees temperatures are rising
- Warming could exceed safe levels in this lifetime
- Global climate talks can reach agreement