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 31.


    peer review takes longer than a week - unless your name is Trenberth and you're a member of the Team


  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Are so many of you so blind to think we can consume so many resources, and produce so much CO2 and NOTHING is going to happen??? The world is kind of like a balance. Introduce something in greater quantity than normal and you change the balance, and make the environment less livable. Climate change isn't about saving the planet. In 100,000yrs the planet will be fine, its about saving ourselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    post 16
    Climate change is very likely to.. cause. .. human activity.
    Climate refugees, mass migrations and border control costs are probably more of a worry to political leaders than carbon issues.
    Think! If countries mass produce goods at very cheap prices, they are going to skip on health and safety, wages, and environment and we choose to buy ultra cheap goods for our own reasons.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Re 27: I give it less than a week before those papers are torn to pieces by people who understand the subject and become forgotten. like countless other skeptic claims that just wither on the vine.

    For example what happened to that claim last year that all the warming was caused by scientists deleting cold stations in Russia?

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.


    "Objective" doesn't mean ignore relevant papers etc if they don;t fit tyour preconceived conclusions

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    To 4, 6 and 25:
    The objective, scientific view is this: Global warming is happening, it's mostly down to all the carbon dioxide we're churning out, now get over it.
    To 15: The amount emitted in a single year isn't going to cause a noticeable leap in temperature against the 'noise' of local and seasonal variations, like lead poisoning it's the cumulative effect you have to worry about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    according to the Independant "Hard-up UK puts climate change on back burner"


    and a new paper has concluded that the warming was natural


    Game's almost over Richard, can we have some proper environmental stuff now please

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    I don't think we should take this graph too seriously, what competent statistician arranges a graph in such a way that Canada and the UK (1.5%) appear HIGHER on the list than South Korea (1.7%). My hunch is that this graph is only partialy representitive of a bigger statistical story, but we are only given the one with the big scarey differential to back up a predetermined out come.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Richard, your blog is working! Oysters and fish are now being more sensibly regulated. Thank you, I am sure it is your influence, that is changing what we do at home. The rest of the world can find their own champions. As for carbon increases, 'Cleaning up using geo engineering' reminds me of an old saying, 'sweeping the dirt under the carpet.'

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    "With emission trading specialists in 40 countries worldwide, PwC is the biggest and most talked-to climate change practice."

    drumming up business

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Nobody did anything about CFC's until the southern ocean found itself under a hole that dwarfed Australia. Nobody will do anything about global warming until several pacific countries are under water, tens of thousands die in Bangladesh and London gets its "1 in a 1000 year flood". Given they say the 1 in a 1000 year flood is now expected every 100 years, it may happen in our lifetimes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    BTW That 40-80 trillion cost is for a technology that removes/reduces the human pressure on the food web - allowing us to survive many worst case scenarios.
    In the case of heavy climate change the number who would die might be reduced from 7 or 8 billion to 3 to 4 billion or less, and from that there is a much better chance of society surviving. (we have to commit less atrocities to survive)

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Can we please also see the comparison of these figures in terms of per capita? China and India have much larger populations, and they still use a fraction of what the developed world uses. Clearly, the savings are to be made in the developed countries, not only where people still do not have access to a continuous power supply.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Once again, as always we don't take into account the natural causes of global warming. A simple look at past climates shows that fluctuation in GHG levels does not correspond to increases in Global temperature. Only when politicians understand that we as humans are not contributing to the myth will we see real progress, we need to adapt to global warmings effect rather than try and prevent it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    As for solutions, as many have said before fusion is the most obvious and straightforward, and that 18 billion spent on ITER is a pittance- especially when you realize that its over decades. As I have pointed out before there is a complete solution to this but its cost is 40 to 80 trillion!! Unbelievably the USA's total debt is over $50 trillion all spent on whatnots, bogus mortgages, and war.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    The American National Academy of Sciences research of June 2011, confirmed 97% of climate experts accept that climate change is very likely to be caused by human activity. The level of expertise of the 'unconvinced' 3% was 'substantially below' that of the convinced researchers.The latest exhaustive research from Richard Muller has, again, confirmed the science. Self delusion is not scepticism .

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Accellerating CO2 emissions and no corresponding temperature response. This will be impossible to reconcile by those who subscribe to CAGW theory. Fortunately, governments the world over have seen through it and are moving on. Surely it is now time to add the word 'myth' to the handy climate change glossary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    The real problem here is the simple lack of technology. High carbon tech (burning things) is simple and cheap - and that is the whole problem here. High carbon materials are also used to make most of the things we use and again the carbon gets released at end of life when they are incinerated or decompose. The word is PRIMITIVE - cheap, lazy, easy, throwaway, global - consumerism at its worst.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    'Analysts far more learned than your humble [again?] correspondent will assess feasible pathways and policy mixes in much more detail than here'


    Begging more than a few questions, frankly.

    Top of list would be, when this happens, who will be faxing the PR in for regurgitation, and who has been blocked? Presuming the ability to grasp output from either existed anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    "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"

    That is indeed the theory but not that they move in lock-step, if it were that simple there wouldn't be any debate about it. Luckily we have stats and they do show a link :D


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