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[ The Heat Goes On: CO2 Reaches Another High-Water Mark ]

Our neighbor to the south plans to swim against the tide.

The tide in question is the world’s rising emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), and with the March 2012 data from the Mauna Loa Observatory now in, that tide has risen to new heights. At 394.45 parts per million, it is the highest monthly average concentration of C02 ever recorded at Mauna Loa, the home of the longest contemporary CO2 record dating back to 1958. The previous monthly high of 394.16 parts per million was observed during May of 2011. Because CO2 concentrations increase during the spring with rising rates of photosynthesis, we can expect the greenhouse gas concentration recorded at Mauna Loa to increase through May, probably peaking at a concentration in excess of 395 parts per million.

The Driving Force Behind the CO2 Rise

What’s driving the CO2 climb? Fossil fuel use, of course. More than 85 percent of the CO2 emissions caused by human activities, estimates show, came from burning fossil fuels. (See here and here.) And while the economic downturn produced a slight dip in global emissions from fossil fuels and cement production, the recovery in 2010 saw the largest single-year increase in CO2 emissions on record — up by 5.9 percent or almost 2 billion metric tons over 2009 levels. A recent analysis by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-based research organization, indicates that emissions during 2010 increased in the developed economies by about 3.4 percent and by a whopping 7.6 percent in the developing economies. In China and India growth in CO2 emissions was especially strong at 10.4 percent and 9.4 percent, respectively.

No Sign of a Changing Tide

The prognosis for the future of CO2 is not encouraging.

China, the world’s largest emitter, has declared a goal of reducing its carbon intensity by 40-45 percent [pdf] by 2020, relative to 2005, as part of its Copenhagen commitment. A laudable goal, but it won’t bring about an actual reduction in emissions. Because of China’s projected economic growth, a reduction of 45 percent in carbon intensity would still almost double emissions (compared to 2005). And a forthcoming analysis by Yanqing Xia of Dongbei University of Finance and Economics seems to suggest that even meeting that intensity goal will require difficult policy decisions. As far as I can tell from what’s been published (the full analysis is not yet out), the paper’s abstract suggests that as long as the Chinese government places priority on growing gross domestic product over safeguarding the environment and promoting conservation, energy (and carbon) intensity as well as emissions from Chinese industries will continue to grow.

The United States can take some satisfaction in the fact that the latest predictions by the U.S. Energy Information Administration see CO2 emissions dropping by five percent by 2030 compared to 2005. (See EIA’s data [xls].) But in the Copenhagen Accord we committed to cutting emissions by some 17 percent in 2020 [pdf] consistent with cuts of 42 percent by 2030. Staying flat won’t cut it.

And if you really want to be depressed, check out the latest from the International Energy Agency (IEA). Based on current trends, and more specifically the failure of nations to adopt clean energy technologies fast enough, the agency predicts that CO2 emissions will increase by a factor of 1.3 by 2020 and a factor of 2 by 2050.

The Mexican Bright Spot

There is one piece of encouraging news on the climate front. Galvanized by the worst drought in some 70 years, Mexico is poised to adopt a goal of reducing its CO2 emissions by 30 percent from business-as-usual levels by 2020, and by 50 percent from 2000 levels by 2050. As soon as Mexican President Felipe Calderon signs the bill into law, Mexico will become only the second country to adopt legally binding emissions targets, the other being the United Kingdom (which passed its binding Climate Change Act in 2008). That’s quite remarkable. Even more remarkable is the strong political consensus in Mexico: the legislation passed by a vote of 128 to 10 in the Chamber of Deputies, Mexico’s lower house, and unanimously in its upper house, the Senate. Not exactly the voting outcomes we’ve become accustomed to on this side of the border.

Can Mexico meet its target? Time will tell, but it has a plan: to cut emissions, Mexico aims to expand its renewable energy sources from today’s roughly 20 percent (primarily hydroelectric) to 35 percent in 2024, with wind expected to fuel much of the growth.

Time for Plan B

A hearty bravo and good luck to Mexico. But legislatively mandated carbon targets for the UK and Mexico do not a global climate policy make. I think the time has arrived to make a new plan.

For more than a decade, the scientific community has been urging the world’s political leaders to embrace a climate target of keeping CO2 concentrations below 450 parts per million. The lower, more difficult target of 350 parts per million that some have also argued for, we blew by that concentration in the late ‘80s. And now it seems more and more likely that, given current emission levels and the continued emissions increases from the large sunk investments in carbon-intensive technologies, the window to achieve the 450 parts per million goal is pretty much closed.

So perhaps the time has come to plan for a greater-than-450-ppm-CO2 world. In my playbook that plan should include at least two things:

  1. Push as hard and as fast as we can on lowering the emissions of short-lived non-CO2 global warmers, specifically methane and black carbon. The more we rein them, the more time we buy to address the CO2 problem.
  2. Get deadly serious about adaptation by integrating the reality of climate change into every decision we make. Every policy, every public works, every business decision, every family decision should factor in that we are living in a globally warming world.

And while we’re integrating the reality of climate change into our lives, how about making it a part of our political discourse this presidential election season? President Obama recently opined that climate change would be a major issue during the campaign. OK, Messieurs Obama and Romney, have at it.

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