Human activities are sending an additional 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere this year alone. Future emissions cannot exceed 1,200 billion tons if average global temperature rise is to be kept within two degrees Celsius
Humans are spewing out ever more carbon dioxide – the main greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere, and there is no sign that the trend will change soon. A weak agreement at the just-concluded UN climate conference in Lima does not help.
According to most recent estimates, 2014 emissions of carbon dioxide are projected to be 2.5% higher than in 2013, which mean human activities are releasing 37 billion additional tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere this year alone.
Scientists estimate that future carbon dioxide emissions should not exceed 1,200 billion tons in order to keep the earth’s temperature increase within two degrees Celsius. This is a goal adopted by all governments to avoid severe and irreversible climate change effects.
But there is no indication that this rising emissions trend will change soon, and at the current rate of emissions, the remaining quota will be used up in less than a generation, says Joel Stronberg of the Worldwatch Institute.
As in 2013, the primary emitters in 2014 from the combustion of fossil fuels are expected to be China (28%), the United States (14%), the European Union (10%), and India (7%. In emissions per person among these countries, however, the US ranks first with more than twice the per capita emissions of China, ranked second.
The three other major greenhouse gases responsible for climate change are methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons. Natural gas production and agriculture are major contributors of methane, a super-potent gas that traps 86 times the heat of carbon dioxide. Satellite photos show that methane leakage from the drilling and pipeline delivery of natural gas offsets any carbon dioxide benefits that natural gas may bring over coal during combustion and use.
Energy supply, industrial processes, deforestation, agriculture, and transportation account for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation not only generates carbon emissions from the burning of forest residues, but also reduces the capacity of forests to capture carbon.
Stronberg says flattening the emissions curve to slow the rate of global climate change requires increasing the efficiency of energy production, transmission, and consumption; switching to renewable energy sources for electricity generation and transportation; and using non-fossil-fuel-based feedstocks for chemical production, among other actions.
It is not all doom and gloom, however. The rapidly falling costs of clean energy alternatives such as solar and wind power reduce the need for government subsidies to make them competitive with fossil fuels. Innovative financing mechanisms are making solar systems more accessible to consumers everywhere. New storage technologies help address the problem of intermittency of wind and solar power. In remote areas of developing countries, mini- and micro-grids can be deployed more rapidly than building or expanding a centralized electric grid. And around the world, some companies are committing publicly to increasing their investments in de-carbonization and reducing their carbon footprints.
Whether or not the delegates to the 2015 climate conference in Paris can agree on the expected global accord, individuals, corporations, and national and subnational governments are showing greater willingness to take some needed actions. However, Stronberg asks, will the required steps be taken rapidly enough to avoid crossing the two degrees Celsius threshold?