Emissions near ‘point of no return’ for global warming

CARBON dioxide emitted by energy use hit a record high last year, dimming prospects for limiting global warming to two degrees celsius, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said yesterday.

Breaching the 2ºC threshold sharply increases the risk of severe climate impacts, including flooding, storms, rising sea levels and species extinction, scientists have warned.

“Energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2010 were the highest in history,” the Paris-based IEA said.

After a dip in 2009 caused by the global financial crisis, emissions rose to a record 30.6 gigatonnes (Gt), a 5% jump from the previous record year in 2008, the agency said.

Moreover, 80% of projected greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 from energy sources are “locked in”, as they will come from power plants already operating or under construction.

“This significant increase in CO2 emissions and the locking in of future emissions due to infrastructure investments represent a serious setback to our hopes of limiting the global rise in temperature to no more than 2ºC,” said IEA chief economist Fatih Birol.

UN climate change talks have agreed that average global temperatures should not increase by more than 2ºC.

To achieve this, long-term concentration of greenhouse gases must peak at about 450 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide equivalent, barely 5% more than in 2000, scientists say.

This target will slip beyond reach if global energy-related emissions in the year 2020 exceeds 32Gt, the IEA said.

The rise in emissions over the next decade must be less than the jump between 2009 and 2010, the agency cautioned.

“Our latest estimates are another wake-up call,” said Birol. “The world has edged incredibly close to the level of emission that should not be reached until 2020 if the 2ºC target is to be attained.”

The UN’s top climate official said the figures underscored the urgency for political action.

“The IEA estimates are a stark warming to governments to provide strong new progress this year towards global solutions to climate change,” said Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. UN climate talks, resuming in Bonn next Monday, remain deadlocked on how to achieve the 2ºC target.

The IEA estimated 40% of global emissions in 2010 came from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) club of advanced countries.

But these account for only a quarter of the annual emissions growth. The rest came from rapidly developing countries, led by China and India.

Emerging countries say emission caps will stunt their development and say only rich economies can afford the technology that can cut emissions and boost living standards.

On a per-capita basis, OECD countries emit on average 10 tonnes, compared with 5.8 tonnes for China, a voracious burner of coal, and 1.5 tonnes in India.

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