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OP-ED: Global CO2 Emissions Reach a New Record High

Peter Custers*

LEIDEN, The Netherlands, Jun 10 2011 (IPS) - The alarm bells this time are not being rung by climate scientists or by environmental activists. They are being rung by none other than the International Energy Agency (IEA) – the institution established in the 1970s to defend the interests of Western oil consuming nations.

On May 30, the IEA issued a press release that sent shock waves through the Western world. According to the release, global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) have reached their highest levels ever in 2010.

Although following the financial crisis emission levels in 2009 temporarily dipped, in 2010 they are calculated to have been 30.6 gigatonnes. For the layperson, the implications of this figure may not immediately be evident, but the figure squarely indicates that exponential growth in CO2 emissions has not been stopped by the joint international initiatives taken since the 1990s.

Accumulation has continued up until today. A decade back, in 2000, the level of emissions was probably about 23 gigatonnes. This means that over the last ten years alone annual emission levels have increased by a staggering 25 percent! Hence, the IEA’s chief economist, Fatih Birol, is sounding the alarm, stating: “Our latest estimates are another wake-up call. The world has edged incredibly close to the level of emissions that should not be reached until 2020, if the two degree Celsius target is to be attained.”

Global leaders agreed a target of limiting temperature increase to two degrees Celsius at the U.N. climate change talks in Cancun in 2010.

How do we assess the implications of the IEA’s assessment of humanity’s efforts to avert a climate catastrophe? Prominent climate scientists have for years been debating what target humanity should set for itself. What maximum level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is permissible if runaway climate change is to be averted? Many scientists have been pushing for the target to be set at 350 parts per million – meaning that the presence of greenhouse gas molecules in the world’s atmosphere should not exceed 350 molecules per million molecules of atmospheric air.


Significantly, when the Copenhagen Summit was held in December of 2009, it witnessed a growing consensus among a majority of nations that the precautionary advice of climate scientists should be taken to heart, and that the target of a 1.5 degree Celsius cap should be maintained. Hence, critics reading the IEA press release will react or retort that the agency is not sounding alarm bells as loudly as it should – for it is still working on the presumption that a two degree Celsius target is defendable.

James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climate archaeologists, has become internationally renowned, amongst others because in his scientific papers and publicity work he takes account of the evolution which the earth’s climate has undergone during the many hundreds of millions of years before human civilisation arose. Hansen puts forth data on the situation that prevailed three million years ago. At that time the earth was two or three degrees warmer than it is today – and it was a different planet, with sea levels not just higher than they are now, but a staggering 25 metres higher!

The lower sea levels since civilisation arose have led to the building of human settlements in coastal areas previously flooded or covered by ice. The sea level difference is, of course, basically explained by the existence today of huge ice sheets – notably the Antarctic and the Greenland ice sheets.

Hansen argues that – unlike previously believed – the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets won’t take thousands of years to melt. They will disintegrate rapidly once danger points are reached. Hence, the American scientist maintains that “a two degree Celsius global warming, or even a 1.7 degree warming, is a disaster scenario”.

Clearly, given the IEA’s data on 2010 CO2 emissions at hand, Hansen would ring shrieking, not soft alarm bells.

What policy-consequences should be drawn from the IEA’s revelations? So far the two key paths the world’s policymakers have followed to stem the exponential growth in emissions have been ineffectual. These are the paths of ‘technological’ and of ‘market-based’ fixes.

Here it is striking that the IEA’s chief economist continues to express a holy belief in technological fixes.

When releasing the IEA’s data on CO2 missions, Birol advocated – of all technological fixes – continued reliance on nuclear energy. This is surprising because any expansion in capital-intensive nuclear production requires many years to accomplish – doing very little to prevent exponential growth of CO2 emissions in the short-term.

What’s worse is that both nuclear production and reliance on fossil fuels result in forms of waste that are inescapable – meaning that they represent a dead-end for humanity. This is not to deny there are great differences between the two types of waste. Greenhouse gases such as CO2 exist in nature – they have only become damaging due to their extremely high levels produced under the industrial system that is based on fossil fuels, i.e. on coal, oil and gas. On the other hand, many of the radioactive elements in nuclear waste do not exist in nature, but emerge as by-products when nuclear energy is generated.

Both fossil fuels and the nuclear production chain threaten to saddle humanity with consequences that can’t be undone. In case of nuclear waste: the half-life of radiation in thorium-230, in plutonium-242 and in jodium-129 respectively lasts 76 thousand, 380 thousand and over 15 million years!

If a technological fix via the expansion of nuclear production is questionable – what about a ‘market- based’ fix to solve the problem of climate change? Here it might be too early to close the debate. Yet the IEA’s announcement regarding CO2 emissions in 2010 raises big questions regarding market-based approaches to avert run-away climate change.

Under the Kyoto climate change treaty of 1997 policymakers set concrete targets towards reducing global emissions of CO2. To stem their exponential growth, obligatory reductions were agreed on. The main practical measures proposed to achieve reduction targets were market-based. They entailed making CO2 wastes tradable – which in effect transferred responsibility for storage of CO2 to countries of the Global South.

Perhaps the historical lesson to be drawn from the IEA’s announcement is that the time for market- based experiments is over. Humanity can no longer afford to continue with failed experiments.

From common sense, to avert a climate catastrophe, we need to rapidly embark on a different, a more ‘radical’ path.

Compelled by Hansen’s scientific analysis and the IEA’s historic, if defective, announcement, I venture to suggest that the Global South needs to insist on a new approach to avert a climate catastrophe.

Why not propose that the Western world agrees to help enforce global rationing of energy access? Why not demand from the West that it help institute a worldwide system of energy rationing that is both equitable to the world’s poor and to vulnerable nations? Why not and put a permanent and strict cap on overall emissions?

*(Dr. Peter Custers is author of a theoretical study on nuclear production, Questioning Globalized Militarism, Tulika/Merlin Press, 2011.)

 
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