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Steve Connor: Link between fossil fuels and economic growth has to be broken

As things stand we could be facing average temperature rises of up to 6C, which civilisation has never encountered

The latest update on the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere from industrialised countries emphasises the apparently inextricable link between fossil fuels and economic activity.

Anyone studying the global emissions of man-made carbon dioxide over the past 30 years can see that the only time there was a dent in their growth was during a worldwide recession – once in the early 1990s and again in the early 1980s.

Fossil fuels have powered the engine of economic growth and prosperity since the Industrial Revolution. The great problem for economists and scientists is to find ways of breaking this link, of finding ways to improve, or at least maintain, prosperity without burning ever bigger quantities of coal, oil and gas.

The latest figures show that for the first time in nearly two decades, global carbon dioxide emissions fell in 2009, largely because of the impact of the recession on the older industrialised countries.

The fall, amounting to 1.3 per cent below the record emissions of 2008, would have been even greater had it not been for the growth in emissions from the newly industrialised nations of China (up by 8 per cent on the previous year) and India (up by 6.2 per cent). What has exacerbated matters is that these two countries have turned to coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel of all, to power their economic growth.

Projections for this year suggest that global fossil fuel emissions will rise by 3 per cent – more than the average annual rise seen in the past decade. Once again, we are heading towards an accelerating trend upwards unless the international community can reach some kind of agreement, starting with the climate negotiations in the Mexican city of Cancun at the end of the month.

As things stand, we are precariously close to the "business as usual" scenario that climate scientists are warning against. Unless we can curb our fossil fuel emissions globally, we could be facing average temperature rises of up to 6C, something that civilisation has never encountered.