It was supposed to be the silver lining to the global downturn: economic activity would slow, causing widespread misery, but at least the environment would get some breathing space as carbon emissions fell. Well that breathing space has turned out to be more of a desperate gasp.
According to the latest analysis from scientists at Exeter and East Anglia universities, there was a small dip in global emissions of 1.3 per cent in 2009. And this year they are expected to increase by at least 3 per cent – more than the average annual increase for the past decade.
Economies in the US, Europe and Japan are still struggling to grow, but emissions are set to return because of the rapid economic expansion of industrialising India and China. These projections underline the extent to which climate change pollution is now being driven as much by the developing world as high-income countries.
This growth will lift millions out of poverty in the coming years. Yet the scientific consensus also tells us that if global carbon emissions continue increasing at this rate, the result will be runaway climate change. This will result in ecological devastation and potential social breakdown. The only way for the world to escape from this developmental/environmental paradox is to discover a way to decarbonise economic growth.
That will be difficult and expensive. But it is not impossible. We need a formal global deal at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun later this month that includes mutually agreed binding cuts in emissions for both high-income and developing nations, with allowances made for those nations with lower standards of living. There also needs to be agreements to transfer low-carbon technologies to developing nations.
World leaders flunked the opportunity to reach such a deal in Copenhagen last year. Expectations are not high this time around either. But the direction in which the world needs to travel if we are to avoid a climate disaster has not changed. And what this latest research shows us is that the clock is ticking even faster than anticipated.