News Feature: Carbon emissions climbed to a record high in 2010

Further fueling fears that the world is not going to meet the emissions targets set for 2020, the latest research conducted by the International Energy Agency (IEA) discloses that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2010 were the highest in history. This revelation comes just a few weeks after Prime Minister David Cameron increased the UK’s carbon budget to 2027, increasing the emissions target to 80% by 2050.

The IEA report, which precedes the annual ‘2010 World Energy Outlook,’ states that after a brief dip in levels in 2009, which can be put down to the global financial crisis, emissions are estimated to have ascended to a record 30.6 gigatonnes (Gt). This represents a 5% leap from the previous record year in 2008, when levels reached 29.3Gt.

These figures do not bode well for reaching the 2020 targets agreed last year when global leaders met in Cancun for UN climate change talks. The targets outline that global temperature should be reduced by 2% in just nine years, yet in order to reach this mark the long-term concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere must be limited to around 450 parts per million of CO2-equivalent.

When we consider that many countries around the world have been ramping up renewable energy activities in recent years, it seems almost shameful that emissions levels are rising rather than dropping. Yet the IEA doesn’t see the situation altering any time soon, estimating that 80% of projected emissions from the power sector in 2020 are irreversible, as they will come from power plants that are already in place or currently under construction.

“This significant increase in CO2 emissions and the locking in of future emissions due to infrastructure investments represent a serious setback to our hopes of limiting the global rise in temperature to no more than 2ºC,” said Dr Fatih Birol, Chief Economist at the IEA.

“Our latest estimates are another wake-up call. The world has edged incredibly close to the level of emissions that should not be reached until 2020 if the 2ºC target is to be attained. Given the shrinking room for manœuvre in 2020, unless bold and decisive decisions are made very soon, it will be extremely challenging to succeed in achieving this global goal agreed in Cancun.”

When breaking the emissions down, the IEA reports that in terms of fuels, 44% of the estimated CO2 emissions in 2010 came from coal, while 36% were from oil, and 20% from natural gas. These figures highlight the need to increase the amount of renewable energy, and decrease the dependency on fossil fuels. While the IEA estimates that a large portion of these emissions is set in stone – as the power plants are already operational, or soon will be – it is still of vital importance that leaders do all they can to change the rising trend in carbon emissions.

Speaking about the situation in the UK – which is currently subject to a renewable energy feed-in tariff review, Alan Aldridge, Managing Director of renewable energy supplier Riomay said, “This research is a major wake up call for the politicians. The [UK] Government needs to take bold, decisive and urgent action to slow down our dependency on fossil fuels and give industry and consumers alike a real reason to choose alternative energy sources such as renewable energies. The environmental clock is ticking with the rate we are using up our fossil fuels and their consequent impact on our environment. This is a complex problem which demands a holistic solution. And we must do it quickly.

Fossil fuels took 500 million years to create and we will use them up in a few of hundred years. We now have the technologies in place to give real alternative energy sources.”