Power station plumes.

Power station plumes.

Global Carbon Project: warning to the world

Global carbon dioxide emissions increased by a record 5.9 per cent in 2010 following the dampening effect of the 2008–2009 Global Financial Crisis (GFC), according to scientists working with the Global Carbon Project. (9:00)

  • 5 December 2011

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Discover more about the Global Carbon Project annual emissions summary.

Glen Paul: G'day and welcome to CSIROpod, I’m Glen Paul. The global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 saw developed countries attempting to maintain economic output through various ways such as cutting interest rates and propping up faltering banks. In many cases this led to the support of less energy intensive activities. The result of this was a drop in global carbon dioxide emissions as reflected in the Global Carbon Projects annual report card of last year. 

Joining me on the line to discuss the Global Carbon Projects latest report card, published in Nature Climate Change, is co-author and GCP Executive Director, CSIRO's Doctor Pep Canadell.

Pep, 12 months ago we spoke about the anomaly in emissions brought on by the GFC and you predicted that emissions contributing to atmospheric warming may reach record levels in 2010. Now that you've got last years results, how accurate was that prediction?

Pep Canadell: Well, the new data, if anything it's actually surprised us in the sense that there's been a very spectacular recovery of global fossil fuel emissions in 2010. It was a much bigger recovery than we had actually anticipated. Basically, global fossil fuel emissions grew in 2010 by 5.9% and just to put this figure in perspective, global fossil fuel emissions were about 1 per cent per year during the 1990s and were about 2.5 per cent during the decade of 2000 so almost 6 per cent during 2010 is a huge number.

Glen Paul: It is indeed. What has led to this increase?

Pep Canadell: Well, we believe that unlike other economic crises, the massive economic stimulus packages helped a lot to this very rapid recovery in 2009 and if we go by the low fossil fuel data that we're showing this year the packages were exceptionally efficient at bringing back industrial production and domestic consumption to the levels prior to the global financial crisis.

Glen Paul: How seriously are developed countries taking their Kyoto and Copenhagen emission reduction commitments from what you're saying?

Pep Canadell: I think that countries, typically in the developed world, have been very busy at just trying to bring back their economic output back to what the expectations are of anywhere between 2% and 4% growth annually. I think there has been less emphasis on how they can, at the same time, try to bring emissions down. Of course, the global financial crisis as a whole has dramatically helped countries to meet their Kyoto targets, not by choice in this case.

Glen Paul: True. How much influence are the emerging economies having on this process?

Pep Canadell: Emerging economies suffer less from the impacts of the global financial crisis but they also slowed down output in 2009. So what we've seen in 2010 is that both the developed world has recovered really strongly at those levels we had seen during 2000s and emerging economies, particularly, we saw really moving up to almost a double digit emission growth that we also had seen previously. We have countries like China, India, and Brazil who are almost at 10 per cent or more than 10 per cent emission growth in 2010. These are very large numbers.

Glen Paul: Is that because the emerging economies are relying more on coal fired power stations?

Pep Canadell: You look at emerging economies, particularly China and India, we do see that they're driving the global growth in coal production and particularly the generation of electricity with coal. If we were to bring together India and China, they are responsible for more than 110 per cent of the growth that we saw in 2010 and the reason it's more than 100 per cent is because we have a number of developed worlds whose production or use of coal has been declining. Basically, everything that we see due to growth globally is largely due to the growth happening in China and India.

Glen Paul: So from that what can we expect from the Durban Climate Summit? Pundits are saying the prospect for a major global accord on climate change is looking pretty slim.

Pep Canadell: That is correct. Usually before arriving to the conference, any major deals have to be struck. There is already a lot of talk and discussion, it is unlikely that a new global treaty will emerge from it which doesn't mean that a global treaty is the only way to address climate change mitigation.

What's important for Durban to realise is that with the current growth rate emissions of fossil fuel, unless we push them down relatively quickly it is unlikely that we can actually meet the two degree target or stay under the two degree target that the Copenhagen Accord two years ago agreed to.

Glen Paul: How much input will the GCP have during the 12 day summit?

Pep Canadell: At this point we are learning many different ways to actually have an impact. I think that the best impact we can have is actually to have some of these new data sets to really reach the media globally. That's what we're planning, we're planning in the middle of the conference to really have a measure of global splash of press releases in many institutions around the world. We expect that as in previous years we will reach hundreds of media outlets so we can publicise these numbers, I think that's perhaps the fastest way for negotiators at Durban to see the new data sets. As you know, Durban is largely not a scientific conference, it is a conference for politicians and negotiators to get these high level agreements.

Glen Paul: Right, so let me just clarify. The 5.9 per cent increase in global carbon dioxide emissions, is that a record?

Pep Canadell: No, it's not necessarily a record. We've seen these high rates in the past, the last one we saw was in 2003. It is among the highest growth rate that we have seen ever, not necessarily the highest one.

Glen Paul: How far back do the records go?

Pep Canadell: Our records now, which are reconstructions of records all the way to 1750, we of course trust them the most as we get closer to the 70s, 80s and 90s and, of course, all these data sets have some uncertainty which we try very carefully to quantify and publicise along with the data that we release every year.

It's important to understand also that as the global share of emissions coming from emerging economies increases then we also have a higher uncertainty because some of these countries have systems for reporting which are not as sophisticated as the ones from the developed world. That's a concern to us because we do need to understand the global carbon budget and the evolution of this budget towards the effects on climate change to those data sets as precisely as possible.

Glen Paul: Sure. So that brings me to 2011. What predictions do you have for this year for when we come back and discuss it in 2012?

Pep Canadell: As we do every year we have just looked at the projections of the International Monetary Fund in terms of the gross domestic product projections for next year. We are looking at almost going back to the long term trend of the 2000s which was a really strong growth trend, over 3 per cent growth. That is really strong, more than 3 per cent is still even bigger than the 2.5 per cent we have seen over the average for the decade of 2000s.

It basically just shows that nothing has changed significantly over the last 11 years. We had this very short lived impact of the global financial crisis but basically the 2000s started really strong, continued throughout and finished with a little decline. As we enter the new decade we see there is full recovery back to those old growth rates and this is what I think Durban needs to be concerned about. For the last 11 years fundamentally there has been globally a change, significantly enough for us to see that the immediate future trajectories are about to change if we are really serious about the two degree centigrade target.

Glen Paul: That is of great concern. Hopefully you'll have some better news for us next year, Pep, when we go through the 2011 report card. Thank you very much for discussing the details with us today.

Pep Canadell: Alright, thank you very much.

Glen Paul: Doctor Pep Canadell. For more information find us online at www.csiro.au, you can like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter at csironews.