Saturday, January 18, 2014

Greenhouse emissions growing - World not doing enough

Climate change still remains one of the most pressing environmental and social issues and world leaders are yet to do anything meaningful about it. It's sadly all talk and very little action as the latest climate change talks in Warsaw, Poland showed. The disappointing climate conference in Warsaw, Poland ended without laying the groundwork for a global climate agreement in 2015, which was something that was hoped from many environmentalists and scientists from all over the world.

And in the meantime there is the continued growth in emissions of greenhouse gases. Both negotiators and activists confront not only the fact that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions reached the highest annual total to date, but also a shifting geographic distribution of emissions. The logical conclusion of this would be that the international community should take rapid and decisive action but sadly we do not live in a logical world.

The latest data by the Global Carbon Project shows that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production reached staggering 9.7 gig tons of carbon (GtC) in 2012, with a ±5 percent uncertainty range, and with the currently expected growth they will likely 9.9 GtC in 2013. In comparison, the 2012 value is 58 percent higher than emissions in 1990, the year often used as a benchmark for measuring the increases in emissions.

Coal (attributing with 43 percent) and oil (attributing with 33 percent) accounted for the majority of these emissions, with natural gas (18 percent), cement production (5 percent), and flaring (1 percent) making up the remainder of the total percentage. The good news in the whole story is that both the U.S. government as well as World Bank is making efforts to limit international financing for new coal projects signal a desire to shift away from this particularly carbon-intensive resource and switch to other, cleaner energy sources.

Regardless of these efforts coal still remains a major culprit behind the increase in CO2 emissions, accounting for 54 percent of the emissions increase in 2012. Coal use is rising in countries currently undergoing energy sector transitions. Coal-related emissions increased in not only developing countries but also in countries such as Germany (4.2 percent) and Japan (5.6 percent)-both of which are phasing out nuclear power plants. Oil, gas, and cement accounted for 18 percent, 21 percent, and 6 percent of the global increase in 2012 respectively.

Although CO2 is the primary greenhouse gas emitted mostly through human activities, it is not the only one with negative effects on global warming and climate change. There are bunch of other greenhouse gases that cannot be ignored. They include methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The total contribution of each of these gases to climate change depends on such factors as the length of time it remains in the atmosphere, how strongly it absorbs energy, and its atmospheric concentration.

Fossil fuel burning when coupled with deforestation and land use change, has pushed the total atmospheric concentration of CO2 to approximately 393.9 parts per million (ppm) in 2012, an increase of more than 40 percent since 1750 and of 24 percent since the Scripps Institution of Oceanography began keeping detailed records in 1959.

There seems to be a global scientific consensus that the CO2 concentration will need to be reduced to at least 350 ppm if we hope to maintain a climate similar to that which has supported human civilization to date and avoid worst possible climate change scenario. Atmospheric CO2 concentration increased by 2.2 ppm in 2012 alone, exceeding the average annual increase over the past 10 years. The bad news is also that the Scripps Institution's measurements indicate an average of 396.2 ppm for the period of January to September 2013, implying an even greater increase this year, and further negative impact on global warming and climate change.

Although the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change agreed in 2010 that the increase in average global temperature since the pre-industrial period must be kept below 2 degrees Celsius, many scientific projections now put the climate on track for warming that is significantly higher than this set mark. For instance, the Global Carbon Project predicts a likely increase in temperature of 3.2-5.4 degrees Celsius while World Bank in its latest report projects an approximate 20 percent likelihood that our planet will get warmer by about 4 degrees Celsius by 2100 if world continues business as usual scenario and fails to mitigate the increase in carbon emissions.

Emissions data also highlight the shifting geographical and historical complexity that makes international negotiations so contentious. The global distribution of emissions in 2012 is very different than it was in 1990, when the Kyoto Protocol was established as the first meaningful global agreement aimed to reduce carbon emissions. In 1990,  industrial countries accounted for 62 percent of emissions; by 2012, that figure had dropped to 37 percent, reflecting rapid industrialization and development in emerging economies such as china and India and shifting patterns in production and consumption.

And despite the fact that the international climate negotiations have focused traditionally on the role and responsibility of nation states new analyses also points to the significant role of different corporations in emitting greenhouse gases. Richard Heede of the Climate Accountability Institute said in Warsaw that the investor-owned corporations have been responsible for 21.7 percent of CO2 and CH4 fossil fuel and cement emissions since 1750, with state-owned corporations responsible for an additional 19.8 percent.

The next stop for climate negotiators, experts, and activists after the Warsaw is Paris in 2015, where there will be yet another hope on forging a global deal to tackle climate change and global warming.

Interesting global greenhouse gas emissions facts from latest reports:
  • It has been reported that the methane is now the third most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, after CO2 and water vapor, on a per molecule basis. Although atmospheric methane levels declined during 1983-99 and remained relatively constant during 1999-2006, they have been increasing since 2007. Methane is 21 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
  • China is currently the world's largest CO2 emitter and its emissions increased by 5.9 percent in 2012, an increase that accounted for 71 percent of that year's global increase. Another major emitter such as United States and Australia, although both still major emitters, experienced reductions of 0.05 percent and 11.6 percent respectively.
  • In 2012, the top four emitters of CO2 on global level were China (2,626 million tons of carbon, or MtC), the United States (1,397 MtC), India (611 MtC), and the Russian Federation (492 MtC). 

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