Modest fall in global emissions to prove short-lived

Global carbon emissions are set to return to record levels this year after the global recession resulted in a smaller than expected drop in emissions during 2009.

That is the conclusion of a paper published today in the journal Nature Geoscience which reveals that emissions fell just 1.3 per cent in 2009, less than half the 2.8 per cent drop most experts were expecting.

It also predicts that emissions will rise by three per cent in 2010 as world GDP rebounds. The three per cent figure contrasts sharply with the one per cent annual rises typical of the 1990s and is also ahead of the average 2.5 per cent annual rise recorded over the past decade.

The report will further fuel concerns that concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere are increasing in line with the worst case scenarios mapped out by climate change scientists and is sure to heap further pressure on negotiators at the Cancun climate change summit, which starts next week.

The report’s authors were surprised by the smaller than expected reduction in emissions last year, attributing the results to the strong economic performance of many emerging economies. China, India and South Korea in particular were able to dodge the worst effects of recession far better than most developed countries, and as a result their carbon intensity, the amount of CO2 released per unit of GDP, remained relatively unaffected.

China, for example, recorded an eight per cent increase in total emissions during  2009, while the UK, Japan, US and Germany posted cuts in emissions of 8.6 per cent, 11.8 per cent, 6.9 per cent and seven per cent respectively.

However, the researchers were quick to point out that soaring emissions from emerging economies cannot be blamed solely on those countries, noting that increases in Chinese and Indian emissions are partly due to developed countries ‘exporting’ their manufacturing sector to developing markets.

The researchers also warned that the despite the 1.3 per cent fall in emissions, the 30.8bn tons of CO2 released during 2009 was still the second highest level in history, falling short of only the 2008 record.

“This tells us that the link between the economy and fossil fuel emissions is still very tight and the efforts, at least globally, to improve the economy while not increasing CO2 emissions are not leading to very much at the moment. There is not much tangible evidence globally that the emissions are starting to curb,” Professor Corinne Le Quéré, one of the report’s authors, told The Independent.

The study contained one piece of good news, reporting that global CO2 emissions from deforestation have decreased by over a quarter since 2000, mainly because of a lower contribution from logging tropical areas.

“Fortunately, we are seeing a real decline in CO2 emissions in the land use change sector due to reduced tropical deforestation and increased forest re-growth in temperate regions,” Pep Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Project and one of the co-authors, said.

Le Quéré agreed that improved forestry policy was beginning to have a positive impact on emissions. “For the first time, forest expansion in temperate latitudes has overcompensated deforestation emissions and caused a small net sink of CO2 outside the tropics,” she said. “We could be seeing the first signs of net CO2 sequestration in the forest sector outside the tropics.”

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