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‘Very worried’ about escalating emissions? You should be

Published: June 2, 2011

‘Very worried’ about escalating emissions? You should be

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has released unpublished estimates of 2010 global carbon dioxide (CO?) emissions, and the news is not good.

Between 2003 and 2008, emissions had been rising at a rate faster than the IPCC worst case scenario. However, the global recession slowed the emissions growth considerably. In fact, they actually declined slightly from 29.4 billion tons (gigatons, or Gt) CO? in 2008, to 29 Gt in 2009.

However, despite the slow global economic recovery, 2010 saw the largest single year increase in global human CO? emissions from energy (fossil fuels). They grew a whopping 1.6 Gt from 2009, to 30.6 Gt. The previous record annual increase was 1.2 Gt from 2003 to 2004.

Currently, in terms of both cumulative and annual emissions, we are on track with Scenario A2, the description of which matches what’s happening in the real world fairly accurately thus far:

Relatively slow end-use and supply-side energy efficiency improvements (compared to other scenarios).

Delayed development of renewable energy.

No barriers to the use of nuclear energy.

The major exception is that several countries are transitioning away from nuclear power in the wake of the Japanese Fukushima disaster. This could slow emissions reductions even further.

So, what does continuing on our current path look like?

Scenario A2 puts us at 850 ppm atmospheric CO? in 2100, with an average global surface temperature 3.5°C hotter than in 2000 (more than 4°C above pre-industrial levels).

If we return back up to Scenario A1FI (fossil fuel intensive), which we were exceeding until the global financial crisis, we’re looking at 950 ppm CO? and 4°C global warming over the 21st Century (more than 4.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures in 2100).

Clearly this is very bleak news. In an interview with The Guardian, IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol said:

“I am very worried. This is the worst news on emissions…It is becoming extremely challenging to remain below 2 degrees. The prospect is getting bleaker. That is what the numbers say.”

Indeed, limiting global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures, which is considered the “danger limit” but which may even be too risky, is a challenge to achieve even in the most optimistic IPCC CO? emissions scenarios.

In fact, the UK Hadley Centre Met Office recently found that just to limit global warming to 3°C, we should have started taking serious action to reduce emissions in 2010

If we continue with this business-as-usual high emissions path, the consequences could be dire.

Some of the impacts listed in the IPCC report for global warming of 3–4°C above pre-industrial levels include:

hundreds of millions of people exposed to increased water stress

30–40% of species at risk of extinction around the globe

about 30% of global coastal wetlands lost

increased damage from floods and storms

widespread coral mortality

the biosphere – soils, plants etc – stops absorbing carbon and starts releasing it

reduced cereal production

increased death and illness from heat waves, floods and droughts.

The IEA also found that about 80% of the power stations likely to be in use in 2020 are either already built or under construction. This means we’re “locked in” for continued emissions from these power plants, which constitute about one-third of global human CO? emissions from fossil fuels.

So it’s going to be difficult to transition off of these high emissions scenario paths, and we’ll have to find wiggle room in other sectors like transportation.

Birol said that this alarming news should serve as a “wake-up call” for international climate negotiations and other emissions reduction efforts:

full article and illustrative graphs here: