Categorized | Climate Change, Fossil Fuels

Global Warming Pollution Heads Skyward Again

If there was anything approaching a silver lining in the global economic crisis, it may have been this: that the contraction in the world’s economy saw an attendant decrease in global emissions of carbon dioxide. Could the drop in carbon emissions from 2008 to 2009 set the stage for a longer term reduction in energy use, and perhaps be the start of long term emissions reductions? Well, the answer was revealed this week, and the answer is an emphatic NO.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), an intergovernmental organization that advises major economies on energy policy issues, revealed today that worldwide carbon dioxide emissions from energy production spiked in 2010, rising to 30.6 gigatonnes (Gt), a 5% increase over the 29.3 Gt released in 2009.

A “gigatonne” – that’s a one followed by 9 zeroes — is a pretty abstract number. It’s about equal to the emissions of 200 million cars. But the implication of 30.6 Gt couldn’t be more stark: it means that the window of opportunity for limiting the rise in global temperatures to manageable levels is rapidly closing. At the most recent round of international climate change negotiations in Cancun, leaders settled on a target for maximum carbon dioxide concentration of 450 parts per million, a concentration widely believed to have reasonably high probability of limiting climate change to 2oC (3.6oF) Previously, the IEA had warned that stabilization at 450ppm would require emissions to peak at 32 Gt by 2020 and drop to 22 Gt by 2035. This new information means that either emissions need to start leveling off much sooner than 2020, or we will greatly increase our chances of much higher temperature increases – of the sort that will put millions more people at risk of sea level rise, produce heat waves that put to shame the hottest summers of the 20th century, and significantly decrease the yields of important crops.

Does this new round of bleak news mean that all hope is lost for preserving a world whose climate is like that we were born on? Of course not: it means we need to redouble our efforts to convince our leaders that emissions reductions are a worthy national goal. But we can’t just wait for Congress and international negotiations to take concrete action – everyone has a role in reducing greenhouse gas pollution.

The stalled pollution policies, though, also mean that adaptation, or preparing for climate change impacts, is increasingly important to protect our cities, our coastlines, our floodplains, and our wildlife habitats, for a world that will warm more than we would like.


EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.

IEA’s May 30 Press Release.

IEA’s 2010 World Energy Outlook Fact Sheet.

National Research Council. 2011. Warming World: Impacts by Degree.

This post was written by:

- who has written 22 posts on dotWild.

Aimee Delach is a Senior Policy Analyst at Defenders of Wildlife. Aimee develops policies to help land managers and decision-makers incorporate climate change threats into efforts to protect wildlife and habitats.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.