An Embarrassment of Emissions

The world released about 564 million additional tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air in 2010 than it did in 2009. That’s an increase of nearly 6% and the biggest increase of emissions on record, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC). That additional pollution surpasses the individual annual emissions of every country except China, the U.S. and India, the world’s top producers of greenhouse gases.

2010 was a record year for CO2 emissions around the globe, due in part to an 8% increase in coal burning, the world’s largest source of carbon emissions. China’s total emissions increased the most by 10%, while emissions in the U.S. rebounded 4% from an emissions decline in 2009. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), four factors combined to drive the 4% national rebound: population growth (0.9%), output per capita (2.1%), energy intensity (0.7%) and carbon intensity (0.1%). They also noted that “2009 experienced a relatively mild summer while the summer of 2010, on the other hand, was much warmer than average” leading to an “increased air-conditioning demand in the residential sector.”

According to CDIAC director Tom Boden, 2010’s pollution rates are in line with the worst case global warming scenario outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international body for the assessment of climate change. In a 2007 report for the IPCC, thousands of voluntary scientists and experts estimated that world temperatures could rise between 1.1 and 6.4 °C (2.0 and 11.5 °F) during the 21st century. The report’s analysis on human-induced climate change, its impacts, and options for adaptation and mitigation was reviewed by representatives from 194 governments and was awarded, along with Al Gore, with the 2007 Noble Peace Prize. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report will be finalized in 2014.

“Because of its scientific and intergovernmental nature, the IPCC embodies a unique opportunity to provide rigorous and balanced scientific information to decision makers,” the organization stated on their website. “The work of the organization is therefore policy-relevant and yet policy-neutral, never policy-prescriptive.”

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), however, believe the IPCC’s warming calculations are too conservative, stating in a 2009 report that “all our simulations have a very small probability of warming less than 2.4°C.” “The more we talk about the need to control emissions, the more they are growing,” said John Reilly, the co-director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. Though emerging economies like China and India are projected by the EIA to remain the heaviest carbon polluters, the U.S is responsible for 25% of global CO2 emissions, “primarily because our economy is the largest in the world and we meet 85% of our energy needs through burning fossil fuels.”

Burning fossil fuels could come at a cost to some industries, however, if new legislation passed in California catches on. Last month, in accordance with the Global Warming Solutions Act—Assembly Bill (AB) 32—California adopted the first ever state-administered cap-and-trade emissions regulations which will provide financial incentive for the state’s larger fossil-fuel burning industries to reduce carbon pollution. Under AB32 requirements, California’s CO2 emissions in 2020 must be equal to 1990 levels. If successful, the state’s new cap-and-trade program, along with their clean car and renewable energy mandates, may be mimicked among other states and nations.

“When the nation addresses the growing danger of climate change, as I believe it must and will, California’s climate plan will serve as the model for a national program,” said California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary Nichols.