08 December 2011

The Science Is Dire on Carbon Emissions. The Politics Are Worse

However you slice it, the scientific news has not been good on the pace of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. The weekend saw a pair of new studies that confirmed the fact that—far from curbing greenhouse gas emissions—we’re warming the atmosphere faster than ever, even as the slow-moving U.N. climate talks underway now at Durban underscores how difficult the political challenge of cutting carbon emissions is proving to be

By BRYAN WALSH | Time | December 5, 2011

The first study—by scientists with the Global Carbon Project and published in the journal Nature Climate Change—tracked carbon emissions over the past few years, and found that emissions from burning fossil fuels jumped by a record 5.9% in 2010, hitting 10 billion tons last year. The second study—published in the journalNature Geoscience—estimates that three-quarters of the warming that’s been experienced since 1950 can be traced to human activities. Just in case there was any doubt—and there should be little now—we’re warming up the planet, and we’re doing it at an accelerated rate.

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In a statement, Corrine Le Quere of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research—and a co-author of the Nature Climate Change study—laid out the stakes:

Global CO2 emissions since 2000 are tracking the high end of the projections used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which far exceed two degrees warming by 2100. Yet governments have pledged to keep warming below two degrees to avoid the most dangerous aspects of climate change such as widespread water stress and sea level rise, and increases in extreme climatic events.

Taking action to reverse current trends is urgent.

But the study underscores just how little we’ve done to slow the increase in carbon emissions. Since 1990—the base year for the Kyoto Protocol—carbon emissions from fossil fuels have increased by 49%, making a mockery of that global treaty’s ambition to cut emissions by at least 5%. And it’s getting worse—on average, fossil fuel emissions have risen by 3.1% a year between 2000 and 2010, three times the rate of increase seen during the 1990s, even as global warming has become a global concern.

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The unusually high increase in carbon emissions last year was due in part to recovery from the recession, which helped cause emissions to actually fall in 2009. (Given how closely energy use tends to track with economic growth, it’s little surprise that a financial crisis would result in a reduction in carbon emissions.) And the responsibility is very much with developing countries—especially large and fast-growing nations like China and India, as the paper makes clear:

For the past two years (2009 and 2010), emissions growth has been dominated by the emerging economies (Supplementary Table S1). The CO2 emissions in developed countries (which we take as the Annex B countries from the Kyoto Protocol) decreased 1.3% in 2008 and 7.6% in 2009, but increased 3.4% in 2010, and are now lower than the average emissions during 2000–2007 (Fig. 2). The CO2 emissions in developing countries (non-Annex B countries) increased 4.4% in 2008, 3.9% in 2009 and 7.6% in 2010; the GFC only causing a 40% decrease in emission growth in 2009 compared with the trend since 2000 (Fig. 2).

The 2010 growth was due to high growth rates in a few key emerging economies (Supplementary Table S1) — for example, China 10.4% (0.212 Pg C) and India 9.4% (0.049 Pg C) — although, the contribution from some developed countries was also substantial in absolute terms: for example, United States 4.1% (0.060 Pg C), Russian Federation 5.8% (0.025 Pg C) and the 27 member states of the European Union 2.2% (0.022 Pg C).

Meanwhile the climate talks underway in Durban remain in a holding pattern, and even longtime supporters of the process—like former U.N. climate head Yvo de Boer—are having their doubts about its effectiveness, as de Boer told the AP in an interview:

“I still have the same view of the process that led me to leave the process. I’m still deeply concerned about where it’s going, or rather where it’s not going, about the lack of progress.”

Negotiators live “in a separate universe,” and the ongoing talks are “like a log that’s drifted away,” he said. Then, drawing another metaphor from his rich reservoir, he called the annual 194-nation conferences “a bit of a mouse wheel.”

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To say the least. While the European Union and most of the smaller developing countries want to move on the negotiation of a new binding carbon treaty as soon as possible, the U.S., China and India remain opposed, each for their own reason. The Kyoto Protocol—set to expire next year—is falling apart, with signatories like Canada and Japan making it clear that they will not be volunteering for another commitment period. The nearly 15-year-old Kyoto conundrum—that major nations like the U.S. won’t accept carbon limits if major developing countries like China won’t either—remains unsolved, blocking hope for progress on more tractable issues like deforestation and funding for adaptation.

So that leaves us with very little hope, at least in the short term. On Sunday South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane—who is leading the U.N. summit—held a prayer service calling for divine help on climate change. Right now it looks like that’s what it will take.

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Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME
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