Good News: The Economy Is Up, Bad News: So Are Carbon Emissions

The recession didn't solve our carbon problems after all

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Global carbon-dioxide emissions hit an all-time high in 2010, surpassing 2008's record of 29.3 gigatons by 5 percent, according to the International Energy Agency. At a point in 2009, it seemed like the one positive outcome of the international economic recession would be decreased carbon emissions resulting from countries scaling back their industrialization. In fact, The New York Times reported,  "emissions of carbon dioxide and other climate-altering gases fell six percent in 2009 and were at their lowest level since 1995." Carbon emissions were falling even as the U.S. population was growing. Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA told The Guardian at the time, "Because of the financial crisis, many industries have the chance to move away from unsustainable power. If we get a good result at the Copenhagen climate talks, then they could be turned into sustainable energy."

However, it looks like the recession's end has resulted in a swift comeback for carbon emissions, an increase that could cause a real problem for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries' plan to cap the global temperature increase at 2 degrees Celsius. "To get there we'd have to limit the atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to 450 parts-per-million, and many nations have made pledges of intermediate emissions targets that should put us on a path to those levels by the end of the century," John Timmer at Ars Technica explains. "Unfortunately, at the current rate it will only take two more years to reach the target these nations have set for 2020. That leaves remarkably little wiggle room for growth, or will require many countries to actively reduce emissions in the latter half of the decade."

It is also worth noting that 75 percent of the rise in carbon emissions over the last year came from China, India and other members of the developing world. Fast Company's Morgan Clendaniel predicts that as such countries begin to generate more money, "there will be a lot of consumers out there who want their first car and house and TV." And since creating cleaner power sources costs more than using the existing dirty but efficient plants, "it appears to be impossible for a good economy and a cool planet to exist side by side."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.