Grim news on emissions

By Bryan Walker 30/05/2011

The Guardian, with the exception of the foolishness of its analysis of the climategate emails, is one of the world media’s bright spots when it comes to recognising and communicating the realities of climate change. It carried grim news yesterday. Environment correspondent Fiona Harvey reported International Energy Agency (IEA) unpublished estimates that greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history.

’Last year, a record 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere, mainly from burning fossil fuel — a rise of 1.6Gt on 2009, according to estimates from the IEA regarded as the gold standard for emissions data.’

She reported IEA chief economist Fatih Birol (pictured) telling the Guardian:

“I am very worried. This is the worst news on emissions. It is becoming extremely challenging to remain below 2 degrees. The prospect is getting bleaker. That is what the numbers say.”

Nicholas Stern was trenchant:

“These figures indicate that [emissions] are now close to being back on a ‘business as usual’ path. According to the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s] projections, such a path … would mean around a 50% chance of a rise in global average temperature of more than 4C by 2100.

’Such warming would disrupt the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across the planet, leading to widespread mass migration and conflict. That is a risk any sane person would seek to drastically reduce.”

In an accompanying article linking the news to the latest round in twenty years of talks due to be held at Bonn 6 — 17 June, Harvey again quotes Stern as hoping that the figures might be a wake-up call to governments and lead to a speeding up of progress in the international talks, which has been slow since Cancún.

“The window of opportunity to meet the 2 degrees target is closing, and further delay risks closing it altogether. The challenge is not simply to meet the targets agreed at Cancún but to raise our ambition from there.”

Fatih Birol went so far as to say that the goal of keeping temperature rise to less than 2 degrees was likely to be just ’a nice Utopia’, though if there was ’bold, decisive and urgent action, very soon, we still have a chance of succeeding.’

A fat chance of that. As John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, said:

“This news should shock the world. Yet even now politicians in each of the great powers are eyeing up extraordinary and risky ways to extract the world’s last remaining reserves of fossil fuels — even from under the melting ice of the Arctic. You don’t put out a fire with gasoline. It will now be up to us to stop them.”

To which I might add that it is also up to us in New Zealand to stop the dangerous development of Southland lignite which will release many more tons of CO2 into the atmosphere and commit us to a long-lasting capital investment. The tying of our economic development to the exploitation of our fossil fuels which marks our new energy strategy is far removed from any rational response to the threat of a much warmer world.

Damien Carrington, the Guardian’s head of environment, in blogging on the news of increasing emissions writes of the urgent need to decouple the link between economic growth and carbon dioxide.  Our government instead speaks of holding the two together in an ’astute balancing of conservation values and economic growth.’

Carrington wrote also of the need to align the hopes and fears of the rich industrialised world and the poor developing world. While the developed world continues to balk at the major transfer of wealth needed to enable the developing world to fund a clean emergence from deprivation there is little chance of an international agreement.

As I was writing this the Guardian followed up with a Monday editorial on the subject. It concludes that we are still hurtling towards dangerous climate change at a time when policymakers are out of solutions for slowing this process, and that we should be alarmed. I guess that’s pretty obvious, but at least the Guardian says it and doesn’t keep silent on an issue so fundamental for the human future. I notice the editorial in this morning’s Herald was on the green light polls show the NZ public is giving John Key on tough issues. No suggestion that tackling climate change effectively was one of them. There’s little to suggest it occurs to him either.