Thursday, May 31, 2012

Climate change window closing fast

The chance to prevent runaway climate change is slipping away. Global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil-fuel combustion reached a record high in 2011 and there is nothing to suggest the trajectory will change this year or in the foreseeable future

A 6.1% increase in CO2 emissions in countries outside the economies within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was only marginally offset by a 0.6% reduction inside the major economies,  according to estimates from the International Energy Agency.

The rise was driven by Chinese coal burning power stations which created a 9.3% increase, or 720 million tonnes more CO2 released into the atmosphere and by increased industrialisation in India where emissions rose by 8.7%. That makes India the fourth largest emitter behind China, the United States, and the European Union, overtaking Russia.

CO2 emissions in the United States fell by 1.7% due to a switch from coal to natural gas, an exceptionally mild winter, the recession alongside higher oil prices and fewer car journeys. The Obama government's rush to create new coal-fired power stations, to facilitate cheaper-than-oil energy generation, could quickly reverse that, however.

In the EU too there was a reduction of 1.9%, due to a cut in industrial production and a relatively warm winter. However, the EU is also set to turn this small reduction back by giving up on renewables and “rebranding” gas produced by fracking as “green fuel”. This is in spite of research showing that taking the production and burning process as a whole, fracking emits as much harmful greenhouse gas as coal, including large quantities of very harmful methane.

Per capita CO2 emissions in China and India still remain just 63% and 15% of the average within the advanced capitalist economies. The argument runs that, to achieve so-called climate justice, they must be allowed to increase emissions until they reach average levels.

Per capita increases do not, however, translate into higher energy use for the poorest people, who continue to struggle with light and heat. They represent rather the transfer of emissions from the consumer economies of the West to the manufacturing base in the East. The poorest in Asia and Africa will be the greatest sufferers from the impacts of climate change, as the elites in those countries grow richer.

However it is achieved, the science shows that to limit global temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels (a scenario that will itself bring dramatic changes to world climate) emissions must peak in 2017. IEA Chief Economist Faith Birol said the 2011 data provides “further evidence that the door to a 2°C trajectory is about to close".
China had made significant progress in slowing the rate of its increase, but this was not neither sufficient nor a quick enough reduction.

Coal accounted for 45% of total energy-related CO2 emissions in 2011, followed by oil (35%) and natural gas (20%).Therefore the way to achieve a rapid reduction is to cut use of ALL these fossil fuels, not only the most harmful. This could be achieved by a massive energy efficiency and energy saving programme, and by switching to renewables.  

There is no political will on the part of any governments to take the measures needed to achieve peak emissions in 2017. The drive to industrialise and ferocious competition in world markets, makes it impossible for them to co-operate to achieve it. A transformation in politics and democracy so that decisions are made on behalf of people and planet as a whole, rather than in the interests of “growth” and profits, is absolutely necessary. Without it, runaway climate change become unstoppable.  

Penny Cole
Environment editor

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