Dirty secrets: What's behind carbon's rise?

Cyclist in flood The reports show "clean" technologies are not being adopted fast enough to stave off climate impacts

Late last week, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which hosts the US's official emission-counting agency, released data showing a huge surge in carbon dioxide emissions from 2009 to 2010.

Now, consultants Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) has an analysis showing that greenhouse gas emissions rose by more than economic growth.

And this in a world where the vast majority of governments have endorsed reports saying that man-made climate change is set to bring serious impacts to societies and economies unless it's checked.

So what's going on?

The ORNL data shows a much higher growth in developing countries than in the developed world.

We're talking about CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning and cement manufacture here.

And on that basis, China's emissions rose 10% in a year, India's 9%, the biggest contributers to a global leap of 6% - as ORNL says, making 2010 "by far the record year" for these emissions.

On a per-capita basis, of course, the two Asian giants are still some way behind the US and especially the Gulf states.

Graph The Energy Collective's graph from ORNL figures shows China taking a clear lead in emissions

But on a national basis, China has extended its lead over the US, with India now confirmed in third place.

Asia didn't feel the effects of the recession anywhere near as keenly as Europe and North America, and even in 2009, its emissions rose along with economic growth.

What's startling in the PwC figures is that as the world in general started to emerge from its economic woes, the carbon numbers rose faster than the financial ones.

Economic activity expanded by 5.1%; CO2 output by 5.8%.

In the jargon, this is an increase in carbon intensity - the exact reverse of what just about every government has pledged to bring about in their promises to the UN climate convention (UNFCCC).

PwC then asks the key question: in the light of these figures, what has to be done now to ensure emissions fall fast enough that the target of constraining the rise in global average temperatures below 2C from pre-industrial times can be met?

The answer they calculate is that it will require a cut in carbon intensity by 4.8% per year between now and 2050.

That's a rate that has hardly ever been achieved, except in the context of the collapse of communism or a major war.

The one big exception is China, which decarbonised at 5.8% per year during the 1990s, although it started from the standpoint of very poor fuel effiency and massive reliance on coal, so could be said to be plucking "low-hanging fruit".

In a sense, the numbers aren't a surprise. They're a logical extension of the twin-track approach that governments in general have had; we want to curb emissions, but we also want to grow.

Very few have implemented a policy framework that would enable this circle to be squared.

Analysts far more learned than your humble correspondent will assess feasible pathways and policy mixes in much more detail than here.

But in essence, I think there just is a small number of options on the table if the rate of decarbonisation and the 2C target are to be seriously pursued:

  • rapid and widespread adoption of nuclear power (France decarbonised at 4.2% per year during the 1980s through this approach)
  • rapid deployment of renewables and energy efficiency
  • the development of a radically new technology that could deliver vast amounts of cheap electricity - nuclear fusion is the only clear contender
  • cleaning up using geoengineering.

Some might add shale gas to that list as an intermediate step on the way to true low-carbon technologies. But the recent revelation that shifting from coal to gas has very little climatic benefit should surely give people making that argument pause for thought.

Exploring the fusion option would need above all a big injection of government investment.

While the estimated $18bn pricetag for building Iter, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, at Cadarache in France might seem steep, it's trivial compared against the vast sums being found in various back pockets to shore up the eurozone, for example.

Nuclear fusion explainer There are several approaches to nuclear fusion - but is society investing enough in them?

Given the unique potential of fusion, should equal sums not be going into other methods of reaching it, including laser fusion, so eggs are distributed between different baskets?

The second option would be the one favoured by many experts in the field.

But it's politically the hardest, because the economic levers to drive low-carbon investment barely exist anywhere in the world.

I can hear a sharp intake of breath from hundreds of government and government-linked experts, particularly in Europe, at that last comment, but I'd stand by it. At the scale identified by PwC (and it's far from alone), the economic carrots and sticks just aren't there.

It's proven by the ORNL and PwC figures. If the levers were there, the figures would be different.

PwC notes that a political agreement that could drive a high carbon price and other levers was expected to emerge from the Copenhagen summit.

But it manifestly didn't, and there's precious little chance of it any time soon.

And the fact that big CO2 rises and big economic growth are happening in developing countries makes it less likely than ever, because increasingly the developed world is looking at them and asking "why should we be the only ones to take a hit?"

Meanwhile, every investment in a new coal-fired power station, in tar sands and shale gas, locks those fuels into place for decades to come.

There is, of course, a fifth option in addition to the four I gave above, and increasingly it looks like being the one humanity is taking.

It is that we don't make the policy choices needed to meet 2C, and leave future generations to deal with the consequences.

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Perhaps one ought to look at the effect of Catlytic Coverters on the environment. As the amount of road traffic increases so do the number of CatCons. The CatCon converts HARMLESS (to the atmosphere) CO into extremely damaging CO2. CO breaks up in the atmosphere without doing any lasting damage. CO2 on the other hand, as we know, is an extremely dangerous greenhouse gas.

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    CO2 emissions increasing at ever higher rates?

    Odd how temperatures havn't increased for nigh on 14 years then

    I understood the way the theory went was increased CO2 leads to inevitable and increasing temperatures

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    most of those countrys are net consumers and almost all import from china because of cost. manufacturer at home and all you will see is china's percentage change and your own countrys increase by the same amount. For someone who wants to reduce their carbon foot print? stop having kids and don't by anything both of which i doubt will happen

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The figures merely show that the emphasis has been on the wrong problem. Rising population numbers and aspirations make it unlikely that any significant reduction in CO2 can be achieved.
    Better far to concentrate on dealing with the consequences; rising sea levels and changing areas and products for agriculture. I have no doubt that future generations will look at our current concerns as misplaced

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    A Lester, that would involve the BBC actually taking a scientific and impartial view on the subject, something that it has shown itself to be incapable of. Maybe Richard is too busy briefing BBC staff on what to think about climate change to be able to report on anything else, let alone in a fair and balanced way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The self-centerism begins in developed countries who consume far than is needed for health and then use their large economy to create via emulation mini-versions of themselves in the developing countries. Is it still the case it will ACTUALLY take massive sea-level rise til the issue is addressed?

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Richard, I think you need to change your job title to global warming correspondent. Do you think we could have an article at some point that talks about the environment without in being put in terms of global warming. Or at least an article that looks into both sides of the debate rather than just assuming its true. Eg, more discussion of the huge amounts of corruption and hypocrisy involved

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    The space reflectors, ocean fertilisation, or any other technique alike is a complete WASTE of time and money.

    We don't need to replace our defences; but instead repair them - and naturally.

    I consider that to be a vital decision; and one that will benefit us the most in the long term - and more to the point, we don't even need to use geoengineering.

    Lower emissions, don't increase influence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Very Worrying figures, but I doubt anyone will be spured into action in any meaningfull way. I've long beleived that the last option you gave will be the one that is followed.
    Im a qualified environmental scientist, and worked for years to educate the public on environmental issues but got so depressed with the lack of meaninfull action that I left the industry.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Looks like a fantastic business opportunity to me!

    Although I do believe governments are waiting for a 'super-breakthrough' in energy generation techniques, to avoid wasting billions on current methods; such as the Nuclear Fission plan, or cheaper manufacturing abilities for solar panels - were public sector organisations rent/provide licenses for panels, maybe?

    It's not like we have a choice!


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