Record year for fossil fuel emissions pushes carbon budget to the brink

Scientists release multiple journal papers showing increased challenge of cutting emissions as coal and China dominate growth

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio at the People's Climate March in New York City with an estimated 300,000 other marchers. DiCaprio spoke to world leaders at a UN climate summit the following day.
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio joins an estimated 300,000 other protesters at the People’s Climate March in New York City on Sunday. DiCaprio spoke to world leaders at a UN climate summit in the city the following day. Photograph: Edward Leavy Jr/Edward Leavy Jr/Demotix/Corbis

Drowned out by the hundreds of thousands of people at climate change marches and all those heads of state checking in to a New York climate summit, we got confirmation this week that the world had broken a record.

Humanity (ahem) managed to pump 36 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels and making cement in 2013 – an all-time high.

For those cynics among us, you might just hold up that number as a testament to our decades-long collective political and societal failure to cut our profligate fossil fuel and consumption habit.

It’s hard to come to any other conclusion than seeing that 36Gt CO2 as a big fat #FAIL which, when you put a hashtag in front of it, can be lost on Twitter among videos of cats falling off kitchen surfaces and other time-sapping bilge.

Global carbon budget

We can thank the Global Carbon Project (GCP) for confirming the record 36Gt CO2 figure and for also telling us that emissions will probably go up another 2.5 per cent in 2014.

The GCP includes work from more than 80 scientists and researchers from 66 organisations in 12 countries.

Their research and analysis was released in the wake of all that protest and political rhetoric with four articles published in three science journals.

All of the data from the GCP project has been published on the open access journal Earth System Science Data.

The GCP data tells a number of stories that are most clear when you see them in graphs. And who doesn’t love a graph?

In short, most of the growth in emissions is coming from China (57 per cent of the growth in emissions from 2012 to 2013 came from China, followed by 20 per cent from the USA and 17 per cent from India. The European Union’s emissions actually fell).

Carbon dioxide emissions of world's top polluters
Chart showing the growth in carbon dioxide emissions from world’s top four regions from 1960 to 2013. Image: Global Carbon Project Photograph: Global Carbon Project

While emissions from all types of fossil fuels are still rising, the biggest contributor these days is coal. Coal is also the fuel source showing the greatest annual growth in recent years.

Chart showing major sources of fossil fuel emissions
Coal burning has long overtaken oil as a major source of carbon dioxide emissions. Image: Global Carbon Project Photograph: Global Carbon Project

A paper looking at how the growth in emissions impacts on climate targets has been published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

The Nature Geoscience article looks at the concept of a budget for emissions to avoid 2C of warming – an idea that was also raised in this year’s major UN climate change reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

To have a two in three chance of avoiding 2C of global warming, the team says the total emissions from the year 1870 should not go above about 3200 GtCO2.

On that scenario, the world has already used up 2000 GtCO2, leaving just 1200Gt left. Over that 145-year period, about 25 per cent of the budget was emitted in the last 15 years.

If the world was to keep emitting the 40Gt CO2 that its estimated we’ll manage in 2014 (that figure includes emissions from land clearing) then the research says the world will burn up its 2C carbon budget in about 30 years.

The research also finds a “robust relationship” between Gross Domestic Product and emissions from fossil fuels.

Accumulating problems

Some of the GCP scientists have started to ask how – in the face of rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions – the world’s leaders and policy makers could possibly hope to negotiate their way out of trouble.

Another article in the journal Nature Climate Change makes some studied suggestions of ways to share what’s left of the dwindling budget among the world’s emitters.

This cuts to the chase of the negotiations that will take place at the next major United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meetings in Lima this December and in Paris in late 2015.

How much weight, for example, will negotiators put on the historical emissions from different countries? Is emissions intensity more important (the amount of CO2 per unit of GDP) or are current rates of emissions more important than historic levels.

Australia’s commitment?

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s Climate Action Summit for world leaders in New York this week was not part of the official negotiations process.

The idea was to bring world leaders together to try and add some impetus to talks that barely reached crawling speed at last year’s talks in Warsaw.

Australia sent its Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to the summit. “We are committed to working with other countries to find practical solutions to the climate challenge,” she told the summit.

Australia is vying with Indonesia for the position of world’s biggest coal exporter.

As the GCP clearly shows, coal is now the number one source of human CO2 emissions, yet Bishop was unable to utter the “c” word.

I wonder if this “commitment” Bishop mentioned includes the trip she made to Hyderabad in India in 2011, paid for by mining magnate and Australia’s richest person Gina Rinehart?

At the time, Rinehart was trying to sell her coal assets in Queensland’s Galilee Basin to Indian infrastructure and power giant GVK.

GVK founder GV Krishna Reddy’s granddaughter was getting married in Hyderabad and Rinehart wanted some MPs on her arm as a display of her influence back in Australia.

Bishop, shadow foreign minister at the time, and two other federal MPs obliged and flew to Hyderabad to attend the wedding with Rinehart.

A few months later, Rinehart secured the sale of her coal interests to GVK for a cool $1.2 billion.

GVK continues its plans to develop these three mines to export 60 million tonnes of coal a year from Australia to India.

Is that the kind of co-operation and commitment to climate change Bishop was referring to?



Steve Ulrich is a principal at Bay Integrated Marketing: I have been working with people to maximize their use of social media and internet publishing, optimize their websites to turn prospects into customers, and establish their personal brand on the internet. We are also working with Eco Distribution, Inc. to find and implement practical solutions to help clean up our air and the environment. Eco Distribution, Inc. is a California based Distributor and Representative Firm dealing in environmentally friendly and Green solutions. We have leveraged 30 years experience in responsible construction management to provide solutions for some of the most impactful challenges facing our air, water, and land. We have an oil/hydrocarbon remediation system that is effective on everything from simple oil stains on a driveway, to complex oil disasters in the ocean. My approach to social media and internet marketing is simple. Instead of spending a fortune “buying” keywords and ads that don’t return anything we concentrate on three areas: I CAN GET YOU FOUND ON LINKEDIN - NUMBER ONE, PAGE ONE.
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