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Global Carbon Emissions Hit Record High, Report Finds

In a development that underscores the widening gap between the necessary steps to limit global warming and the policies that governments are actually putting into place, a new report shows that global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will likely reach a record high of 35.6 billion tonnes in 2012, up 2.6 percent from 2011. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases warm the planet by absorbing the sun’s energy and preventing heat from escaping back into space.

The analysis by the Global Carbon Project at the University of East Anglia and the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research in the U.K. shows that China, the U.S., the European Union (E.U.) and India were the biggest emitters of global warming gases in 2011.

Human-generated emissions of carbon dioxide this year are expected to reach 35.6 billion tons. That’s up 2.6 percent from what was emitted in 2011, the previous record holder.
Click to enlarge image.
Credit: Climate Central

Absent significant emissions cuts in the next two decades, climate scientists say that the worst consequences of global warming may be unavoidable, such as several feet of sea level rise due to rapid melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, along with more extreme weather events and harm to ocean ecosystems due to ocean acidification.

The new figures indicate that global emissions from burning fossil fuels are now 58 percent above 1990 levels, which was the baseline year used in the Kyoto Protocol. That is the only global agreement in place that contains mandatory emissions reductions requirements. However, developing countries such as China and India do not have mandatory reductions under that agreement.

Some industrialized countries such as the U.S. have slowed, and in some cases reversed, their emissions growth recently due to the economic downturn and the increased use of natural gas for generating electricity (natural gas emits fewer greenhouse gases than coal-fired power plants). But those trends have been more than offset by the rapid growth in emissions from developing countries. In China, emissions grew by 9.9 percent in 2011, and in India emissions rose by 7.5 percent. That compares to an emissions decrease of 1.8 percent in the U.S., and 2.8 percent in the E.U. during the same period.

The amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record 390.9 parts per million (ppm) in 2011, according to a report released Nov. 20 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). That’s a 40 percent increase over levels in 1750, before humans began burning fossil fuels in earnest. According to the Global Carbon Project, there hasn't been this much CO2 in Earth's atmosphere since at least 800,000 years ago. 

Trend in atmospheric CO2 levels observed at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, since 1958.
Click to enlarge the image. 
Credit: NOAA.

Although CO2 is still the most significant long-lived greenhouse gas, levels of other heat-trapping gases have also climbed to record levels, according to the report. Methane, for example hit 1,813 parts per billion (ppb) in 2011, and nitrous oxide rose to 324.2 ppb. All told, the amount of excess heat prevented from escaping into outer space was 30 percent higher in 2011 than it was as recently as 1990.

During the 2009 U.N. climate negotiations in Copenhagen, countries committed to a non-binding target of keeping global warming to under 2°C, or 3.6°F, compared to the preindustrial levels. However, as the World Bank Report noted and the Global Carbon Project report also said, current emissions trends indicate that the world is on track for far more warming than that, perhaps as much as 7°F of warming by 2060. The World Bank highlighted the dire consequences such warming could have for human health and safety — including dangerous sea level rise, heat waves, and other extreme weather events.

The latest figures come at the same time as diplomats are meeting in Doha, Qatar, to discuss how to move forward with a new international climate change agreement. Only incremental progress toward a new treaty is expected at this meeting, however.

“These latest figures come amidst talks in Doha. But with emissions continuing to grow, it’s as if no one is listening to the entire scientific community,” said Tyndall Center, director of Corinne Le Quere, in a press release. “I am worried that the risks of dangerous climate change are too high on our current emissions trajectory. We need a radical plan.”

Along with this report, which is published in the journal Nature Climate Change, other analyses have been released from the International Energy Agency, United Nations Environment Program, and the World Bank, among others, that have also highlighted the fact that the world is on track for far more warming than political leaders have agreed upon.

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