11 june 2019

Atmospheric carbon levels are leaping. We can't afford more years like this

Each year of high emissions adds to the stock of carbon in the air, bringing us closer to catastrophe

Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent, The Guardian, 12 Jun 2019

One of the many ironies of the climate crisis is that as temperatures change and extreme weather becomes more common, we need more energy to maintain comfort. Hotter summers have driven an increase in power-hungry air conditioning and cooler temperatures in some places – which may be driven by the melting Arctic – raise demand for heating.

BP’s report that carbon emissions from energy use have risen at the fastest rate in nearly a decade reflects those forces, as well as continuing demand from a rising global population and expanding industries.

The effect is already discernible in the atmosphere. Last week, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography reported that carbon dioxide levels in the air leapt this year by the second highest amount in their records, to 414.8 parts per million, at the famous observatory in Mauna Loa where CO2 has been measured continuously since 1958.

Carbon emissions from energy industry rise at fastest rate since 2011

We cannot afford many more years like this. Every year of high emissions adds to the stock of carbon in the air, bringing us closer to the 450ppm of carbon dioxide that scientists warn could tip us into catastrophe. The IPCC’s stark warnings last year showed how dangerous a rise of 1.5C would be, and on current terms we are headed for an even bigger rise.

A decade ago, when emissions were last rising this fast, the financial crisis and global recession led to an unexpected pause in carbon emissions. Fatih Birol, of the International Energy Agency, urged governments and businesses to take advantage of this to reset their economies. Lord Stern, author of the 2006 landmark Stern Review of the economics of climate change, also noted that governments had a choice about how to pull out of the slump and could choose to favour low-carbon methods.

The warnings went largely unheeded and the pause turned out brief: by 2011, Birol was shocked by a record rise in emissions. The world carried on burning fossil fuels and building infrastructure that depended on them, even while alternatives were falling rapidly in price. As a result, high emissions were and still are being locked into our future: buildings, transport networks, power stations and other industrial plants constructed now will still be operating five decades hence. By that time, our future will have been long decided.

The UK government’s independent statutory advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, recently set out proposals for a net-zero carbon target for 2050, saying it was needed to stay within 1.5C. Those plans came under fire from the chancellor, Philip Hammond, who warned in a letter to Theresa May that it would cost £1tn. That sounds a lot. But what Hammond failed to say was that it represents less than six months of GDP in the next three decades – in other words, we would arrive at the same level of national wealth just six months later if we choose to safeguard the planet than if we choose to ignore science.

On the plus side for those hoping for political leadership, every candidate for the Tory leadership apart from Esther McVey has publicly said they support the net-zero target.

While ministers squabble, the fossil fuel industry pleads the need for public investment to persuade them to clean up. BP’s chief economist, resisting calls to invest in carbon capture and storage, said: “You can’t rely on the generosity of the private sector.”

If that is so, in the interests of the rest of us, governments will have to regulate. The question is, will MPs who now support net-zero follow their warm words with concrete actions? And if they do, will BP and the other fossil-fuel profit-makers support them?

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