December 03, 2012

Data Show Global Carbon Emissions Hit Record High in 2011

New climate data published in the journal Nature Climate Change on Sundayshow that global carbon emissions hit a record high in 2011 and could increase in 2012 without a concerted international effort to reduce emissions. According to the analysis published by the study’s authors, the prospect for keeping global warming below 2 ⁰C – the threshold above which scientists expect irreversible climate change to take effect – is increasingly dim. “A shift to a 2 °C pathway requires immediate significant and sustained global mitigation, with a probable reliance on net negative emissions in the longer term,” the authors concluded.

The climate data were released as international delegates meet for four final days of negotiations at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) Conference of Parties 18 in Doha, Qatar. According to a report from The New York Times on Monday, those negotiations are not expected to result in meaningful international progress: “Their agenda is modest this year, with no new emissions targets and little progress expected on a protocol that is supposed to be concluded in 2015 and take effect in 2020.”

The executive secretary of the UNFCC Christiana Figueres said in an interview that countries need to do more at the domestic level in order to build momentum toward a comprehensive global agreement. “We won’t get an international agreement until enough domestic legislation and action are in place to begin to have an effect,” Figueres said in an interview, according to The New York Times. “Governments have to find ways in which action on the ground can be accelerated and taken to a higher level, because that is absolutely needed.”

The recent climate data also buttress the calls for U.S. leadership in forging an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions continue to climb, despite a modest drop in emissions among some of the most industrialized countries, including the United States. The recent decline in U.S. emissions, according to the Times, “reflects a combination of economic weakness, the transfer of some manufacturing to developing countries and conscious efforts to limit emissions, like the renewable power targets that many American states have set.” Recent breakthroughs in shale gas have also contributed to reduced emissions by displacing some coal generation in the United States as well. But China, India and others are making up for reduced emissions elsewhere, particularly by burning more coal, according to recent data. As a result, the pressure is on the United States and other like-minded countries to lead an international effort to encourage these countries to move away from dirtier sources of energy.

Inevitably, encouraging countries like India and China to move away from dirtier sources of energy may fall outside UNFCC negotiations. The United States, for example, could encourage technical exchanges directly between U.S. state agencies and local governments in India and China to help those governments develop the capacity and framework for piecemeal emissions targets. The UNFCC negotiations will remain important, but U.S. leaders should also continue to look for more targeted engagement that in the aggregate can have a sizeable impact on emissions.