Carbon Emission Levels are Out of Control

Shouldn’t carbon emission levels be decreasing every year? According to the Global Carbon Project the exact opposite is happening. Global emissions of carbon dioxide jumped by the largest amount on record last year. So what’s preventing carbon emission levels from decreasing?

First, let’s get the bad news out of the way. Here are some sobering stats from a recent The New York Times article that breaks down the Global Carbon Project data:

Emissions rose 5.9 percent in 2010, according to an analysis released Sunday by the Global Carbon Project, an international collaboration of scientists tracking the numbers. Scientists with the group said the increase, a half-billion extra tons of carbon pumped into the air, was almost certainly the largest absolute jump in any year since the Industrial Revolution, and the largest percentage increase since 2003.

The largest jump since the industrial revolution?! Unbelievable. According to the Times piece, scientists do not expect the extraordinary growth to persist, but do expect emissions to return to the 3 percent growth of the last decade which is “still a worrisome figure that signifies little progress in limiting greenhouse gases”, especially since the growth rate in the 1990s was closer to 1 percent. Yikes.

So who are the culprits contributing to rapid jump in carbon emissions? Not surprisingly, it was the combustion of coal, which represented more than half of the growth in emissions, according to this new research from the Global Carbon Project. Developing countries (and of course China) are big carbon emissions emitters. But there’s an interesting thought that I think gets to the root of the carbon emissions debate that hadn’t occurred to me before.

It comes from Dr. Glen P. Peters, a researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo and a leader of the group that produced the new analysis. “Each year that emissions go up, there’s another year of negotiations, another year of indecision,” he said. “There’s no evidence that this trajectory we’ve been following the last 10 years is going to change.”

Why won’t it change? Dr. Peters thinks the fast rise in developing countries has been caused to a large extent by the growth of energy-intensive manufacturing industries that make goods that rich countries import. “All that has changed is the location in which the emissions are being produced,” Dr. Peters said.

But apparently, it’s not just dirty fossil fuels like coal that are pulling down global sustainability efforts and preventing carbon emissions levels from decreasing. Greenpeace, for instance, is calling out the dairy industry based on a recent report that imported cow feed is responsible for “huge amounts” of greenhouse gas emissions. Here’s more from TV One by way of online news site in New Zealand TVNZ:

The report on Palm Kernel Expeller – or PKE – claims just one year’s worth of imports could have produced almost nine million tons of carbon emissions. Greenpeace spokesman Nathan Argent says the calculation is a worst-case scenario based on the clearance of forest for palm kernel production, with peat land in Malaysia and Indonesia being the most climate-unfriendly.

Based on just these two aforementioned proof points, it’s not hard to see how out of control global carbon emissions really are. But let’s also consider one last point based yet again on more research. This time it’s research from scientists at Yale and Purdue, recently published in The Slate about the formation of the polar ice caps.

In the Slate article, Matthew Huber, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Purdue, said roughly a 40 percent decrease in carbon dioxide occurred prior to and during the rapid formation of a mile-thick ice sheet over the Antarctic approximately 34 million years ago.

“The system is not linear and there may be a different threshold for melting the ice sheet, but if we continue on our current path of warming we will eventually reach that tipping point,” Mr. Huber said. “Of course after we cross that threshold it will still take many thousands of years to melt an ice sheet.”


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  • Joe
    December 8, 2011

    The longer we continue to pollute the environment through carbon emissions, the higher probability for extreme weather. Looking at this year alone, there have been many natural disasters, which may be closely linked to our increased carbon output. There is a great article over at Carbon Management Training that outlines the connection between carbon output and extreme weather, which can be found at

  • T.D. Clark
    December 8, 2011

    Joe, thanks for sharing the article. Let’s hope the weather patterns in 2012 will be less turbulent.

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