2014 Carbon Budget: The time for quiet evolution is over

If the weekend’s surge in global climate activism has left you upbeat, the publication of the annual global carbon budget this evening might offer some sobering news. It should also focus minds of policy-makers ahead of the UN climate talks on Tuesday.

The Global Carbon Project was established in 2001, and started compiling annual global carbon budgets in 2005 to offer insight into how much carbon we can allow to pollute the atmosphere if we want to avoid dangerous climate change. According to today’s report, 2014 emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation are set to reach 40 billion tonnes, the largest amount in human history. We may be breaking records on renewable energy, but the same is true for emissions.

Lead author Professor Corinne Le Quére said: “We need substantial and sustained reductions in CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels if we are to limit global climate change. We are nowhere near the commitments necessary to stay below 2°C of climate change, a level that will be already challenging to manage for most countries around the world, even for rich nations.”

A particular point in the budget for the UN negotiators to chew on is the role of China. Its per capita emissions have, for the first time, outstripped Europe’s. Furthermore, China has surpassed the combined total emissions of the US and Europe. With India’s premier Narendra Modi not attending the talks under some controversy, eyes might also be drawn to their 7% of total emissions, speedily increasing to be on course to surpass Europe by 2019.

Those in New York for either the UN talks or protests don’t need to look far though. The United States, the world’s second largest emitter, saw emissions grow 2.9%. Unless radical energy policies are put in place, whatever Obama’s recent rhetoric on the topic, it’s projected they will remain at this level at least until 2019. In terms of the European Union, there may be a glimmer of good news as deep emissions cuts in some countries have offset a return to coal in others and overall, EU emissions have fallen 1.8%. However it should be remembered that they export a third of emissions, largely to the emerging economies. If you account for these, EU emissions have really only stabilised.

An accompanying paper on the implications of the budget will be published in Nature Geoscience tomorrow. Author Professor Pierre Friedlingstein stressed that our 1200-billion-tonne CO2 ‘quota’ will be used up in a generation: “If we carry on at the current rate we will reach our limit in as little as 30 years’ time – and that is without any continued growth in emission levels. The implication of no immediate action is worryingly clear – either we take a collective responsibility to make a difference, and soon, or it will be too late.” Climate change is not some far off problem for the future.

“We need to act together, and act quickly, if we are to stand a chance of avoiding climate change not long into the future, but within many of our own lifetimes” Friedlingstein continued. “The time for a quiet evolution in our attitudes towards climate change is now over. Delaying action is not an option.”

Editor’s note: The Global Carbon Project is sponsored by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), which will become part of Future Earth in 2015. IGBP is sponsored by the International Council for Science.

Written by . Published on September 21, 2014. Last edited on October 6, 2014.

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  1. Anthony Maturin

    We have to be careful not to be drawn into thinking these big picture scenarios are the full story. Of equal, if not greater significance are the millions of individual carbon footprints. Yours and mine.

    Any responsible carbon footprint calculator will take into account your emissions from heating/cooling your house; local travel; international travel; consumer habits; diet; share of national infrastructure, i.e. responsibility to engage in making changes.

    Each category is important, and interlinked with the rest. The amount of energy used in house heating etc. seems obvious, but gets complicated when discussion turns to installation of PV panels, or other forms of electricity generation. Local travel, methods of commuting to and from jobs might entail quite big changes in lifestyle, as will consumer habits.

    Diet is one of the most important categories. To simplify, do our choices of food mean we support fossil fuel based agricultural methods? Probably yes. Does our eating of meat support farming methane producing ruminant animals? Or production of NO2 from chicken and pig manure?

    International travel is a much bigger contributor to the problem than the airlines and promoters of tourism would have us think. And growing fast.

    The goal must be all but zero emissions by 2050, some reputable climate scientists say by 2030, which seems the more responsible option, so the changes required are huge, and might well be beyond the capacity of current economic systems to cope with.

    The point is, that these are all individual choices and responsibilities.

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