Bleak Outlook for Climate Change with Record CO2 output in 2010

After a dip in greenhouse gas emissions in 2009 emissions growth has rebounded dramatically to reach record levels in 2010.

The world wakes up to bad news on climate change this morning with the International Energy Agency reporting CO2 emissions grew to an historic high of 30.6 gigatonnes, a 5% increase over 2008 levels after a dip in 2009. The growth in output is attributed to fast expanding developing economies who have weathered the recession largely unscathed.
This is particularly bad news when you consider the current global policy aspirations for climate change. After disappointment at the Copenhagen talks in 2009 global leaders at the UN led talks in 2010 did at least manage to agree that temperature increases should be limited to no more than 2°C to avoid the worst risks of climate change. Needless to say, negotiators have yet to agree on a global greenhouse gas reductions deal to achieve this but now it seems time is running out fast.

Sir Nichoals Stern author of the most influential econometric study of climate change to date quoted in the Guardian today said:

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.

There are some tough statistics to swallow in the report including:

  • If the world is to avoid breaching the 2ºC target emissions should not reach 32 gigatonnes before 2020. In other words, we can only afford to grow total global emissions over the next 9 years by the same amount we grew them in just one year between 2009 and 2010. 
  • There is little wiggle room here with 80% of projected emissions from the power sector already locked in from existing capacity or new capacity already under construction. These plants probably don't start to decommission until mid century if allowed to complete their normal life cycle. (click on the illustration below from the International Energy Agency)
  • With much of the spurt in emissions growth coming from the developing world we find plenty of room for economic growth to drive future emissions even harder. On a per capita basis OECD countries emitted an average of 10 tonnes compared with China at 5.8 and India at 1.5. 
  • The nuclear disaster at Fukishima puts paid to new nuclear development anytime soon and likely early decommissioning of existing capacity especially in Europe.

With continued political failure on this issue and inability of the industrial sector to police itself expect a re energising of the civil society/NGO sector. It should also mean a rapid maturation of demand for carbon and energy management software with businesses scrambling to get a grip of this issue if only to head off the effects of more draconian regulation. For hardware manufacturers it means doubling down on use phase data centre, device and PC energy efficiency.