Record-High CO2 Levels a Bad Sign for Global Climate Goals

Record-High CO2 Levels a Bad Sign for Global Climate Goals

Image CC licensed by Flickr user woodleywonderworks

Record levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions last year threaten our chances of keeping the Earth's temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius, considered by scientists to be the threshold for catastrophic climate change.

CO2 emissions from energy production in 2010 were the highest in history following a recessionary dip the year before, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in a stark announcement Monday. Existing and planned power plants mean the bulk of energy-related CO2 emissions projected for 2020 are already "locked in."

"This significant increase in CO2 emissions and the locking in of future emissions due to infrastructure investments represent a serious setback to our hopes of limiting the global rise in temperature to no more than 2ºC," Fatih Birol, the IEA's chief economist, said in a statement.

World leaders have agreed to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius or less above pre-industrial levels to prevent catastrophic climate change, which could include heat waves, rising sea levels, extreme weather and droughts, among other impacts.

We need to keep the concentration of atmospheric GHGs below 450 parts per million in order to achieve this. To put this in perspective, we reached 393 ppm in April. Maintaining an energy pathway to the 450 Scenario would require us to essentially keep emissions levels flat over the next decade.

The IEA noted that developing nations, led by China and India, were responsible for three-quarters of 2010 emissions growth as their economies picked up, a trend likely to continue if their economies continue to grow. In the U.S., figures for GDP growth the first quarter of 2011 made a poor showing compared to the final quarter of 2010. How U.S. performance affects the global economy and emissions levels remains to be seen, but Birol warns the 2010 emissions estimate represents "another wake-up call."

"The world has edged incredibly close to the level of emissions that should not be reached until 2020 if the 2º C target is to be attained," Birol said. "Given the shrinking room for manœuvre in 2020, unless bold and decisive decisions are made very soon, it will be extremely challenging to succeed in achieving this global goal agreed in Cancun."

Image CC licensed by Flickr user woodleywonderworks.