World Carbon Emissions Rise to Record Levels in 2012

As we wrote in the previous article, the International Energy Agency released the bad news on global emissions of carbon dioxide for 2012.

Global emissions from energy use, which accounts for over two-thirds of the total, rose 1.4% to a record 31.6 gigatons. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are now 30% higher than in 1990.

If the world had signed onto a global climate change treaty in the early 1990s – as we were close to doing at Rio – only a reduction of 6-8% of carbon emissions would have been needed.

"What I believe is that climate change is slipping down in the political agenda in many countries even though the scientific evidence about climate change continues to mount," says Fatih Birol, IEA chief economist.  

Still, the rise in global emissions is less than half that of 2011 when they rose 3.2%. In 2011, US and European emissions declined but not enough to offset China’s huge jump of 9.3%.

In 2012, US emissions continued to drop – by a significant 3.8%. About half the decline was due to the natural gas boom (from fracking), replacing coal. The other half was from gains in energy efficiency and greater use of renewables, a mild winter and lower demand for gasoline and diesel.

But natural gas prices have been extremely low and now they are rising, which has already led utilities to use more coal.

Europe’s emissions also declined, but IEA didn’t say by how much.

China, which now produces 25% of the world’s emissions, rose 3.8%, but that was less than half of 2011’s massive increase, driven by deployment of renewables and improvements in energy intensity. For the first time, power production from wind increased more than from coal in 2012.

Japan’s emissions also jumped by a startling 5.8% because it had to compensate for the loss of nuclear energy by importing liquefied natural gas and coal. 

Emissions also rose in the Middle East where petroleum use is heavily subsidized, and in some other developing countries. 

The Way Out 

To get out of this mess, IEA reiterates much of what it has said for years, proposing four near-term "pragmatic and achievable" measures under its "4-for-2°C" scenario. Implementing these could reduce emissions 8% by 2020,without harming economic growth.

These proven measures could stop the growth in global energy-related emissions by the end of this decade at no net economic cost, says Birol:

1. Aggressively increase energy-efficiency measures in buildings, transport and industry – 50% of emissions reduction;

2. Implement stringent controls on inefficient coal plants and only build extremely efficient new ones that capture carbon – 20% of  emissions reduction lower local air pollution. Increase renewable energy‘s share of the energy mix from 20% today to 27% in 2020), natural gas also rises.

3. Stop releasing methane from oil and gas operations. Cutting it in half generates 18% of emissions cuts; 

4. Stop subsidizing fossil fuels; a partial phase-out cuts emissions 12% and supports efficiency efforts. In 2011, subsides equaled an incentive of $110 per ton of CO2.

They also advocate for puting a price on carbon.

IEA notes some of the key efficiency strategies recently put in place: China’s target to reduce energy intensity 16% by 2015; new fuel economy standards for vehicles in the US; EU’s commitment to cut energy consumption 20% by 2020; and Japan’s target to cut electricity consumption 10% by 2030. 

Although these are an improvement on the "disappointingly slow progress in global energy efficiency over the last decade," four-fifths of the potential in the building sector and more than half in the industrial sector remain untapped, IEA says.  

In addition to oil and gas operations, large aging pipelines in the US, Europe and Russia are a major cause of methane release.

Carbon concentration in the atmosphere exceeded 400 ppm for the first time last month, bringing the world to the brink of a 2 degrees Celsius rise that world leaders have pledged to avoid.

A recent UN report concludes emissions are now 14% higher than they need to be to hold temperatures below the 2C rise – with devastating implications for coastal flooding, food and water shortages, and droughts.   

In 2009, the G20 pledged to stop subsidizing fossil fuels, but that has yet to happen. With a price on carbon, solar can provide a third of the world’s energy by 2060, says IEA, and renewables could provide 80% by 2050.  

Read IEA’s most urgent call for climate action yet, World Energy Outlook Special Report 2013: Redrawing the Energy Climate Map:

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