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Huge Increase In Global CO2 Emissions

Air Date: Week of

Global carbon dioxide emissions. (Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center)

Global carbon dioxide emissions increased by six percent in 2010. The Department of Energy’s Tom Boden tells host Bruce Gellerman that the increase is larger than the worst-case scenario suggested by United Nations scientists.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.

The numbers are grim and the news is worse. We’ve got five years or else. That according to The International Energy Agency, which reports if we don’t dramatically cut emissions of green house gases by 2017, we face irreversible, catastrophic climate change.

That dire prediction comes on the release of the latest figures showing the amount of climate-changing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is up. Way up. Six percent just last year. That’s the largest increase ever recorded. In fact, it’s even worse than the worst-case scenario considered by UN climate scientists.

Tom Boden compiled the CO2 numbers. He’s director of the Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center.

BODEN: Well, from 2009 - 2010 marks the first year ever since 1751 that we've exceeded nine billion tons of carbon released to the atmosphere from the consumption of fossil fuels. The six percent increase that we saw from 2009 to 2010 also represents the largest single jump that we have ever seen, and we have been doing this now for about 25 years, and it constitutes about a half a billion ton increase. So, it’s quite noteworthy.

GELLERMAN: You know, these are numbers. When you think about it, is there a way of visualizing it? Giving me an image of what we’re talking about here?

BODEN: Well, let me try to equate it to this: Most of us can remember back in 1991 when Kuwait was invaded and many of those oilrigs were set ablaze. The Kuwaiti oil fires resulted in a release of about 130 million metric tons, which is on a par with Canada’s annual emissions. So think of that as something of almost four times that magnitude, of all of those oilrigs ablaze and continuously spewing carbon into the atmosphere.

GELLERMAN: But I thought that the global economic recession was slowing the emission of greenhouse gasses in general and carbon dioxide specifically.

BODEN: Well, that’s true, but at least from an emissions standpoint, from a fossil fuel consumption standpoint, all indications are that the global financial crisis is over, and you can clearly see countries that were impacted by the crisis and those that weren’t. The U.S. was one where we did feel the impacts of the financial crisis; emissions dropped in 2009, but rebounded in 2010.

Other countries like China seemed to show no impact whatsoever from the global financial crisis, and emissions just continue to soar. Half of that - roughly 500 million ton increase - came from China alone, and the remainder came from mostly Asian countries - India, for example. And, again, in the case of those two countries, they’re countries that have very large populations, growing economies, and they’re also sitting on, you know, large reserves of coal that they are using to meet their growing energy demands.

GELLERMAN: So, when you measure the world wide atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, you measure it in "ppm" - parts per million - right?

Tom Boden is director of the Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center at the Oak Ridge National Lab. (Oak Ridge National Lab)

BODEN: That’s right. And, we have atmospheric concentration measurements that date back to the late 1950s, and those concentrations, those measurements, show us that levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have risen from about 315 parts per million to 390 parts per million presently. And, certainly, the reason for that rise in atmospheric CO2 is due to fossil fuel consumption.

GELLERMAN: There’s some climate activists who say, you know, at 350, if we go over that Katy bar the door, that we’ve reached a tipping point and we need to stay around 350. And you’re saying that we’re up to 390 parts per million.

BODEN: That’s correct.

GELLERMAN: So, are we at a tipping point? Have we gone past that?

BODEN: The emissions scenarios that were used in the last IPCC scientific assessment…

GELLERMAN: Those are the UN science studies.

BODEN: That's exactly right. The emissions scenarios that were used - the trajectory that we’re on exceeds some of the most pessimistic of those emissions scenarios. And in those scenarios, the model continued to show something on an order of three to five degree Celsius global warming. We’re on an emissions trajectory that … this is not business as usual.

GELLERMAN: You know, I'm listening to you and I’m wondering - what do we do?

BODEN: What I tell my children is that we are conducting an experiment with Mother Earth. We don’t know the outcome. But, certainly, human beings are perturbing the atmosphere of the planet that we live in. Some of my kids are alarmed. My youngest one worries about the polar bears and whether they’re going to be around.

The good news is: it's a longer-term problem. I think we need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. We need to explore alternative energy forms. We need to conserve where we can. We need to look at things like mass transportation. The old adage of “think globally, act locally,” would be my advice. I think, you know, if we all try to be less fossil fuel consumptive in our personal lives that, hopefully, it will have an impact as we try to find bigger solutions down the road.

GELLERMAN: We’ve been talking about the dramatic growth in CO2 emissions worldwide with Tom Boden. Mr. Boden is Director of the Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center at the Oakridge National Lab. Well, Mr. Tom Boden, thank you so very much.

BODEN: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.



Carbon Dioxide Infromation Analysis Center report.


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