Economic Recovery Brings Return to Growth of CO2 Emissions

In 2009, over 70 percent of global COemissions resultd from burning fossil fuels for electricity generation, transportation, manufacturing, and construction. (Photo credit: Simone Ramella) 

Although global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) declined slightly in 2009, the beginnings of economic recovery led to an unprecedented emissions increase of 5.8 percent in 2010. In 2011, global atmospheric levels of CO2 reached a high of 391.3 parts per million (ppm), up from 388.6 ppm in 2010 and 280 ppm in pre-industrial times. According to new research conducted by the Worldwatch Institute for its Vital Signs Online project, energy use represents the largest source of global CO2 emissions.

More than 70 percent of CO2 emissions result from the burning of fossil fuels for energy use, such as electricity generation, transportation, manufacturing, and construction. In 2009, electricity generation and heating alone accounted for 41 percent of all energy related CO2 emissions.

The report highlights emissions increases in both industrialized and developing economies. Member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of industrialized countries, increased their emissions by 3.4 percent in 2010, while countries outside the OECD saw an increase of 7.6 percent. Although China was the world’s largest overall emitter in 2010 (followed by the United States, India, and Russia), an examination of emissions per capita tells a different story. China ranks only 61st in terms of the CO2 emitted per person. In India—the world’s third largest emitter—emissions per capita rank far below the world average. The United States, in contrast, ranks second overall and 10th in per capita emissions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has long stressed the urgent need for cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, according to the Worldwatch report, national governments have largely failed to bring about the needed reductions.

Global CO2 levels are now 45 percent above the 1990 level, which serves as the reference base year for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Several Annex I countries—including the United States, which signed but never ratified the Kyoto Protocol—will be unable to meet their original reductions targets. Since December 2011, Canada, Japan, and Russia, have chosen not to take on additional emissions targets within the second commitment period of Kyoto Protocol in the coming decade.

Further highlights:

  • In 2010, coal combustion accounted for 40 percent of energy-related CO2 emissions, while oil and natural gas represented 37 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Coal generates roughly twice as much CO2 as gas and oil.
  • Carbon intensity—or the CO2 emissions released per unit of gross domestic product—varies significantly worldwide, reflecting disparities in economic reliance on fossil fuels in various countries. The highest carbon intensities occur in the Middle East, but low-carbon economies such as Japan highlight the possibility of achieving high living standards with lower CO2 emissions.
  • In 2009, more than 70 percent of global CO2 emissions resulted from burning fossil fuels for electricity generation, transportation, manufacturing, and construction.

READ MORE AT VITAL SIGNS ONLINEApril 27, 2012

Homepage image: 2011 saw record-high carbon emissions. (Photo credit: Eric Schmuttenmaer)

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