Not good news

By Bryan Walker 23/09/2011

My reading this morning didn’t incline me to optimism. I don’t actually need reminding, but in case I did two items underlined that we remain very much on course for a 3 to 4 degree global temperature rise by the end of the century.  A new report published by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency describes a 45 percent increase in global CO2 emissions between 1990 and 2010, reaching an all-time annual high in 2010.

From the summary statement heading the report:

After a 1% decline in 2009, global carbon dioxide emissions increased by more than 5% in 2010, which is unprecedented in the last two decades, but similar to the increase in 1976 when the global economy was recovering from the first oil crisis and subsequent stock market crash. CO2 emissions went up in most of the major economies, led by China and India with increases of 10% and 9% respectively. The average annual growth rate in CO2 emissions over the last three years of the credit crunch, including a 1% increase in 2008 when the first impacts became visible, is 1.7%, almost equal to the long term annual average of 1.9% for the preceding two decades back to 1990. However, most industrialised countries have not recovered fully from their decreases in emissions of 7 to 12% in 2009.

The industrialised countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol plus the non-ratifying USA have emitted approximately 7.5% less CO2 in 2010 than in 1990 and collectively remain on target to meet the original Kyoto Protocol objective of a 5.2% reduction. However, there are large national differences, with for instance over the period 1990 — 2010 decreases in CO2 emissions in the EU and Russia, increases in the USA and stabilisation in Japan. The efforts of the industrialised countries are increasingly hidden in the global picture where their share of CO2 emissions has dropped from about two-thirds to less than half since 1990. Continued growth in the developing nations and economic recovery in the industrialised countries are the main reasons for a record breaking 5.8% increase in 2010 in global CO2 emissions to an absolute maximum of 33.0 billion ton. Increased energy end-use efficiency, nuclear energy and the growing contribution from renewable energy cannot yet compensate for the globally increasing demand for power and transport.

The extract ends with a flat statement which one suspects is made dutifully rather than expectantly:

This illustrates the large and joint effort still required for mitigating climate change.

And today the Guardian reports that carbon capture and storage (CCS) plans have been seriously eroded. CCS is envisaged to account for one fifth of the world’s emissions reductions by the International Energy Agency roadmap to keep warming under 2 degrees. But Richard Jones, the deputy executive director of the agency has warned an international meeting on carbon sequestration that progress is too slow.

“Every year that passes makes it more difficult,” Jones said. “With current policies, CCS will have a hard time [being] deployed … There is less of a global push for climate action, and tighter government finances.”

He told the meeting that a 3.5 degree temperature rise, for which we are headed without successful mitigation, would wreak havoc on human well-being, a fact which one hopes the delegates would not need to be reminded of.

The lack of a price on carbon is an inhibiting factor.

US energy secretary Steven Chu told the meeting the price of carbon would have to be $80 a tonne for CCS to be economically viable with current technology.

But, he continued, the US has yet to even set a price, which makes it difficult for companies to invest and financial institutions to make loans to CCS projects.

“The US needs a price on carbon sooner rather than later,” said Chu. “This is something where we are losing time. It is very important that we get moving.”

Yes, as both items make clear, we have a long way to go. And it seems there’s no good looking to the world’s most powerful nation for leadership. Todd Stern, the US climate change envoy was chilling in his remarks this week, making it clear that the US won’t support any extension of the Kyoto pact and that they won’t take part in any emissions reduction agreement that doesn’t engage major developing powers like China, India and Brazil or that makes those nations’ participation dependent on financial support from the industrialised nations. I would have thought that even if his conditions are met it remains unlikely that the Republicans, gripped by the current frenzy of denial sweeping though their ranks, would see any reason to participate in any international agreement.

I try not to give way to pessimism. But sometimes it’s hard. I thought as the day progressed of Paul Gilding’s great awakening, described in my review of his book The Great Disruption. He foresees an absolutely remarkable turnaround in say 2018 when collapse looms and people come to realise what climate change is doing. It certainly looks as if we’re not going to act effectively without a major jolt. I hope he’s right in thinking that will do the trick.