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Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Jump in coal use pushes emissions to all-time high
MARIAN WILKINSON, ENVIRONMENT EDITOR
The Age, November 18, 2009
A JUMP in the use of coal to produce electricity, especially in China and India, has contributed to carbon emissions from human activities reaching an all-time record high, a study published today finds.
With the faltering climate change talks set to open in Copenhagen next month, the latest figures from the Global Carbon Project show carbon dioxide emissions rising another 2 per cent last year as coal became the dominant source of fossil fuel emissions, taking over from oil for the first time in 40 years.
Developing countries such as China and India have more than doubled their emissions since 1990 and now emit more than the developed world.
But the richer countries still have a far higher rate of emissions per head, about four to five times the rate of the developing world.
The rapid rise in emissions of carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas, is continuing at a rate that the peak United Nations scientific body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, finds will lead to dangerous climate change.
"There is some bad news," said the CSIRO's Mike Raupach, a lead author of the study published in Nature Geoscience.
"CO2 [carbon dioxide] emissions from fossil fuel combustion are estimated to have increased 41 per cent above 1990 levels with emissions continuing to track close to the worst-case scenario of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."
If the current rate of emissions were to continue, Dr Raupach said, climate models projected global temperature rises of between three and four degrees by the end of the century.
"That's obviously dangerous climate change by any measure."
The figures demonstrate the extraordinary challenge facing the world's economies to transform their use of energy, making it cleaner and more efficient.
The beginning of the global financial crisis last year caused a slight slowing in emissions growth, pushing it down to a rise of 2 per cent last year; over the previous seven years the annual average rise had been 3.6 per cent.
Dr Raupach predicted a small decrease in emissions this year because of the financial crisis, possibly back to 2007 levels, before rising again next year as the economic recovery gains strength.
Dr Raupach said: "We will save about six weeks' worth of emissions from the global financial crisis."
The latest figures on carbon emissions are produced by 30 experts from international research institutions working with the Global Carbon Project, including the CSIRO.
Among their findings is that the Earth's ability to absorb carbon emissions from the atmosphere, in the forests and oceans, appears to be decreasing. Over the past 50 years the amount of carbon dioxide emissions staying in the atmosphere appears to have increased from 40 per cent to 45 per cent.
One glimmer of hope in the report is that emissions from land clearing, including cutting down forests, have remained constant since 2000.
They have dropped from 20 per cent to 12 per cent of total emissions from human activities because of the corresponding rise in emissions from fossil fuels.
This year, emissions from land clearing are expected to decrease further with Brazil's announcement that deforestation in the Amazon dropped by 46 per cent from August 2008 to July 2009.
However, environmentalists warn the drop might be a temporary result of the global financial crisis rather than an aggressive controlling of forestry in the region.
The latest figures for Australia, for 2008-09, show emissions from energy, industry and agriculture fell 1.2 per cent, said Dr Hugh Saddler, of Energy Strategies. As for the global figures, the drop was likely to be temporary, "mainly reflecting the economic slowdown".
Australia's emissions from fossil fuel burning have been climbing about 2 per cent a year, a rate significantly faster than other developed countries and it remains the highest emitter per head of all the developed countries.