Record emissions of carbon dioxide

Inclusive Economy22 Jun 2011Peter Custers

The alarm bells this time are not being rung by climate scientists or by environmental activists. They are rung by none other than the International Energy Agency (IEA), the institution set up in the 1970s to defend the interests of western oil consuming nations. On May 30, the IEA issued a press release that sent shock waves through the western world. According to the release, global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) reached their highest levels ever in 2010.

Although after the financial crisis emission levels in 2009 dipped temporarily – in 2010 they were calculated to have been 30.6 Giga-tonnes (Gt). For a lay person, the implications of this figure may not be immediately evident. But the figure clearly indicates that exponential growth in CO2 emissions has not been stopped, as was the purpose of joint international initiatives taken since the 1990s.

Accumulation has continued until today. A decade back, in 2000, the level of emissions was probably about 23 Gt. This means that over the last ten years alone, annual emission levels have increased by a staggering one quarter!

Hence, the IEA’s chief economist, Fatih Birol, has rung the alarm bells stating, ‘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 2 degree Celsius target is to be attained.’1 How to assess the implications of the IEA’s May 30 statement for humanity’s efforts to avert a climate catastrophe? To start, let’s take a closer look at the position from which the IEA sounds the alarm bells. Prominent climate scientists have for years been debating what target humanity should set itself. What maximum level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is permissible if runaway climate change is to be averted?

A section of scientists has been arguing with force that the target should be set at 350 parts per million – meaning that the presence of greenhouse gas molecules in the world’s atmosphere should not exceed 350 molecules in a million molecules of atmospheric air. Significantly, when the Copenhagen Summit was held in December 2009, it witnessed a growing consensus among a majority of nations that the precautionary advice of alarmist climate scientists should be taken to heart, and that the target of a 1.5 degree Celcius cap should be maintained.

Hence, critics reading the IEA’s press release will retort that the agency is not sounding the alarm bells as loudly as it should. For it is still working on the presumption that a 2 degree Celsius target is defendable, whereas precautionary climate science teaches otherwise. It may not be out of place here to cite evidence collected by James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climate archeologists. Hansen has become internationally renowned, amongst others because in his scientific papers and publicity work he takes into account the evolution which the earth’s climate has undergone during the many hundreds of millions of years before civilization arose.

Hansen outlines data on the situation that prevailed three million years ago. At that time the earth was 2 or 3 degrees warmer than it is today. And it was a different planet, with sea levels not just higher than they are now, but a staggering 25 meters higher! The lower levels of sea water existing in time after civilization have facilitated the building of human settlements in many coastal areas previously flooded or covered by ice.

The difference of course, is basically explained by the existence today of huge ice sheets, notably the Antarctic and the Greenland ice sheets. Hansen further argues that, contrary to previous belief, the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets won’t take thousands of years to melt. They will disintegrate rapidly once danger points are reached. Thus, the American scientist maintains, that ‘a 2 degree Celsius global warming, or even a 1.7 degree warming, is a disaster scenario!’2

Clearly, with the IEA’s data on 2010 CO2 emissions at hand, James Hansen would ring shrieking, not soft alarm bells to shake humanity’s conscience. What policy-consequences should be drawn from the IEA’s revelations? So far the two key paths the world’s policymakers have trodden to stem the exponential growth in emissions have been ineffectual. These are the paths of ‘technological’ and of ‘market-based’ fixes. Here it is striking that the IEA’s chief economist Fatih Birol continues to express a holy belief in technological fixes.

Thus, when releasing his data on CO2 emissions, he is quoted as having advocated – of all technological fixes – continued reliance on nuclear energy. This is surprising because any expansion in capital-intensive nuclear production requires many years. It thus helps precious little to prevent exponential growth of CO2 emissions from emanating in a catastrophe soon.

Worse – both nuclear production and reliance on fossil fuels emitting carbon dioxide result in forms of waste that are inescapable, meaning that they represent a dead-end for humanity today. This is not to deny there are great differences between the two types of waste. Greenhouse gases such as CO2 exist in nature; they have only turned into damaging waste under industrial systems based on fossil fuels, i.e. on coal, oil and gas.

On the other hand, many of the radiating elements in nuclear waste do not exist in nature, but emerge as by-products when nuclear energy is generated. Yet both fossil fuels and the nuclear production chain threaten to saddle humanity with consequences that can’t be undone. In the case of nuclear waste: the half-life of radiation in thorium-230, in plutonium-242 and in jodium-129 respectively lasts 76 thousand, 380 thousand and over 15 million years!3 Then, if a technological fix via expansion of nuclear production is questionable – what about a ‘market-based’ fix to solve the problem of climate change? Here it might be too early to foreclose the debate. Yet the IEA’s announcement regarding CO2 emissions in 2010 raises big questions regarding market-based approaches to avert runaway climate change.

Under the Kyoto treaty of 1997, policymakers set concrete targets towards reducing global emissions of CO2. To stem their exponential growth, obligatory reductions were agreed upon. Yet the main practical measures proposed to achieve reduction targets were market-based. They entailed making CO2 waste tradeable, or transferring responsibility for storage of CO2 to countries of the Global South.

Perhaps the historical lesson to be drawn from the IEA’s alarming announcement on 2010 emissions is that the time for market-based experiments is over. Humanity can no longer afford to continue with failed experiments. To avert a climate catastrophe, common sense shows that we need to rapidly embark on a different, more ‘radical’ path. Compelled by James Hansen’s scientific analysis and the IEA’s historic, if defective, announcement – I venture to suggest that the Global South needs to insist on a new approach to avert a climate catastrophe.

Why not propose that the western world agrees to help enforce global rationing of energy access? Why not demand from the West that it helps institute a worldwide system of energy rationing that is both equitable to the world’s poor and to its vulnerable nations – and puts a permanent and strict cap on overall emissions? In 2011, the alarm bells on climate change are ringing. And people with sensitive ears will notice the ringing emits a shrieking sound.


  1. see
  2. James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren (Bloomsbury, London, 2011), p.142;
  3. Peter Custers, Questioning Globalized Militarism (Tulika/Merlin Press, 2007), Part One