Global fossil fuel emissions skyrocketed last year to the highest levels ever recorded, undermining the widespread belief that the global financial crisis would cut carbon emissions. Though there was a brief, two-year decline in emissions, a new scientific report published this week offers compelling evidence that emissions in 2010 soared far above anything we've ever experienced.
Scientists and economists say we're in a terrifying "lose-lose" spiral, where increasing financial instability is linked to climate instability too. It sounds like a dystopia in the making.
The impact of the 2008–2009 global financial crisis on emissions has been short-lived owing to strong emissions growth in emerging economies, a return to emissions growth in developed economies, and an increase in the fossil-fuel intensity of the world economy. Preliminary estimates of global CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel combustion and cement production show that emissions grew by 0.51 Pg C (5.9%) in 2010 and reached a record high of 9.1±0.5Pg C. This is the highest total annual growth recorded.
Keep in mind that 1 PgC is one billion metric tons, which means last year we pumped roughly 9 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Part of these emissions come from burning fossil fuels, and part from making cement.
Emissions were up in all countries the researchers looked at, with China jumping 10.4 percent and the U.S. jumping over 4 percent. Even the carbon-conscious E.U. countries saw increased emissions in 2010 of about 2.2 percent. The researchers note that this trend flies in the face of previous economic crises, such as the oil crises of the 1970s and financial instability in the 1990s, where emissions dipped as countries invested in less energy-intensive activities. A number of factors probably prevented the present financial crisis from effecting fossil fuel emissions, including "(1) rapid easing of energy prices removing pressure for structural changes in energy consumption; (2) large government investment in many countries to promote a rapid return to economic recovery; and (3) the effect of a decade of high economic growth in the developing world, providing a strong foundation for the recovery."
University of Leeds ecological economist Julia Steinberger, who contributed to the report, said in a statement:
The economic crisis should have been an opportunity to invest in low-carbon infrastructure for the 21st century. Instead, we fostered a lose-lose situation: carbon emissions rocketing to unprecedented levels, alongside increases in joblessness, energy costs and income disparities. Surely the transition to a green economy has never seemed more appealing.
Yes, it's appealing. But rebuilding energy infrastructures in a time of economic crisis is going to be difficult.
Countless scientists have established evidence linking increased carbon levels with several of the worst mass extinctions in Earth's history, including one event 250 million years ago that wiped out 95 percent of all species on the planet. For this reason, a large group of biologists argued earlier this year in a paper that the Earth may be entering the early stages of a mass extinction.
Links to primary sources in the text. Image by Aron Hsiao via Shutterstock