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Massive Increase in Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions

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Data from the U.S. Department of Energy indicate that in 2010, the world emitted 9.1 billion metric tons of carbon, a six percent increase over 2009 levels. As the article from the Associated Press points out, this is the largest single year jump ever, and: ‘The new figures for 2010 mean that levels of greenhouse gases are higher than the worst case scenario outlined by climate experts just four years ago (in the last IPCC report*).’

(Click to enlarge)

(See data from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center,  ‘Preliminary 2009 and 2010 Global and National Estimates’)

Clearly, any illusion that the bleak global economic situation could potentially give us some breathing room for enacting policies to lower carbon emissions should be put aside. Emission levels have come roaring back even as the global economy is teetering.

And in spite of growing evidence of the risks of unchecked climate change, the world has not yet summoned the political will and the moral courage to take strong action.

The sobering data on emissions gives a renewed sense of urgency to the next round of international climate talks set to commence in Durban, South Africa, at the end of November.

China and the United States, as the world’s largest emitters, have to step up to the plate. There have been some encouraging signs from China lately. I wish I could say the same of the U.S.

*Clarification added

**Updated on 11/09/2011 to correct an error. 2010 emissions were 9.1 billion metric tons of carbon (not carbon dioxide). That translates to over 33.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Posted in: Global Warming

About the author: Rachel Cleetus is an expert on the design and economic evaluation of climate and energy policies, as well as the costs of climate change. She holds a Ph.D. in economics. See Rachel's full bio.

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  • john saponara

    how could such a jump occur during a recession? is there any indication of which nations or industries or other slices of economic activity are most responsible?

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/news/experts/rachel-cleetus.html Rachel Cleetus

      Even during this recession, global energy demand has been growing. Coal-fired power and transportation are key sectors implicated. The graph above shows the countries with the highest levels of emissions in 2010. Some of the most rapid increases are happening in developing countries like China and India. However, some of this growth is attributable to exports (i.e. related to consumption in other countries like the U.S.). And these countries still have relatively low per-capita emissions and a lower cumulative contribution to global emissions.

  • Ted Webb

    The CO2 emission rate will not be brought under effective control until the effects of global warming reach crisis, unless some evidence-based prediction of the crisis is presented to the political policy-making bodies of the world. Is there any credible effort being made to produce such a study and report? Al Gore type publicity will never work.

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/news/experts/rachel-cleetus.html Rachel Cleetus

      Yes, there are many such efforts both here in the U.S. and at the global level. For example, see the work of the US Global Change Research program: http://www.globalchange.gov/ and the IPCC: http://www.ipcc.ch/ The question is whether policymakers will finally act on this information in a manner commensurate with the threats posed.

  • Bob Neumann

    Carbon emissions and global warning are problems almost beyond solution for 192 plus nations. We have made so little progress in the last thirty years. ONly a world goverment, representing 70 to 90 percent of the worlds population could handle this problem–the United Nations and/or the treaty process are too weak.

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/news/experts/rachel-cleetus.html Rachel Cleetus

      The lack of progress is truly disheartening. The UNFCCC process can only be as strong as member countries allow it to be. One hopes that the big economies will see that this is problem that can only be solved by global cooperation.

  • Eric Holcomb

    Isn’t there a mistake here? It should be about 9 billion tons of carbon, or about 33 billion tons of CO2 (including the weight of the O2). But in any case, it’s an alarming increase.

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/news/experts/rachel-cleetus.html Rachel Cleetus

      Thanks for your comment Eric. I have corrected the error. As you say, this increase is cause for great concern.

  • Glenn Golden

    I would like the conversation about carbon emissions to include those caused by production and consumption of carbonated soft drinks. Ready-to-drink products in bottles and cans certainly must be a source of carbon emissions, as is the CO2 used by almost every restaurant not only to put the “sparkle” into the sparkling beverages at the fountain, but also to push the syrups from the Bag-in-Box to the dispenser itself. Companies exist that generate a large part of their revenues from selling CO2 to food service operations. To what extent do those sources of CO2 contribute to carbon emissions?

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/news/experts/rachel-cleetus.html Rachel Cleetus

      The amount of CO2 in carbonated beverages is miniscule and insignificant compared to the CO2 released from the combustion of fossil fuels and other major sources of GHGs. The more significant sources of emissions related to bottled drinks are from making the containers for these drinks and transporting them over long distances.

  • Don Hoernschemeyer

    I would feel more confident in the figures for CO2 emissions, if MEASURED CO2 levels were also given. The latter have the beauty of data, in contrast to total emissions that entail various data, assumptions and calculations.

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/news/experts/rachel-cleetus.html Rachel Cleetus

      There is robust data on trends in measured CO2 as well. See: http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/ This data points to an unambiguously increasing trend. For example, the global data shows an increase from 386.06 ppm in August 2010 to 388.02 in August 2011.

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