NewsMay 25, 2012

Greenhouse-Gas Emissions Across Globe Hit Record High

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Michael D. Lemonick

By Michael D. Lemonick

Thanks to developing countries like China, greenhouse-gas emissions across the globe hit record highs in 2011, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

While the IEA’s report is a preliminary estimate of carbon dioxide emissions for 2011, the news as a whole is not good. The total weight of CO2 that entered the atmosphere thanks to fossil-fuel burning last year was 31.6 billion metric tons (or nearly 35 billion old-fashioned tons). That’s a 3.2 percent increase over 2010, setting an all-time record. To see what that looks like in real time, you can check out Deutche Bank’s carbon counter, which pegs the accumulate weight at more than 3.7 trillion metric tons.

This spells bad news for those who hope to limit the overall rise in global temperature to 2°C (3.6°F) above where the pre-industrial average (it’s already gone up by about .7°C (1.3°F). It’s not as though the world will be just fine below that threshold and in deep trouble above it; when it comes to global warming, there’s no magic number; it’s just that during the UN’s 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen, delegates agreed that 2° was achievable in theory.

That theory is looking a lot shakier now. The IEA says that even to have a 50-50 chance of keeping things under the 2° threshold, CO2 emissions would have to peak at just 32.6 billion metric tons, no later than 2017 — or just one billion tons higher than 2011 emissions. Give that 2011 was a billion tons higher than 2010, this seems awfully unlikely.

“I think it would be unrealistic to think that there will be major breakthroughs very soon,” IEA chief economist Faith Birol told Reuters. He also said, soberingly, that “When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6 degrees Celsius (by 2050), which would have devastating consequences for the planet.”

Helping fuel the record-high was China — the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases — which saw its emissions rise 9.2 percent from a year ago. That increase would have been much higher if the country hadn’t improved energy efficiency and started deploying clean energy technology like wind and solar in recent years.

India’s emissions rose by 8.7 percent, vaulting it ahead of Russia to be come the world’s fourth-largest CO2 emitter after China, the U.S. and the European Union.

Emissions in the U.S. actually fell by 1.7 percent, in part because of a continuing switchover from coal to natural gas in power plants and in part due to an unusually mild winter.

Japan’s emissions spiked by 2.4 percent as fossil fuels have taken over much of the nation’s energy load in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.

Coal accounted for 45 percent of emissions, oil 35 percent and natural gas 20 percent.