Chinese economic miracle fuels surge in carbon emissions

Greenhouse gas output hits record high as China overtakes US to become world's biggest polluter

Michael McCarthy
Saturday 05 November 2011 01:00 GMT
A coal fired power station in Huaibei, in east China's Anhui province
A coal fired power station in Huaibei, in east China's Anhui province (GETTY IMAGES)

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Soaring carbon dioxide emissions from China and the US have driven the world's output of greenhouse gases to its highest level, alarming new figures reveal.

Global CO2 emissions in 2010 reached 33.51 billion tonnes, up from 31.63 billion tonnes in 2009 – an increase of nearly 6 per cent. This is believed to be the highest-ever percentage increase year on year, despite growth in many industrial economies being sluggish or non-existent.

However, the figures from the US Department of Energy show clearly that it is the surging Chinese economy that is driving the growth: China's emissions in 2010 were 8.15 billion tonnes, up from 7.46 billion tonnes the year before – a 9.3 per cent increase in 12 months.

The 694-million-tonne increase alone dwarfs all the carbon emissions that Britain produces in a year. China now accounts for 24.3 per cent of global carbon emissions and has taken over the role, held by America for decades, of the world's biggest polluter.

The US, whose emissions totalled 5.49 billion tonnes in 2010, up from 5.27 billion tonnes in 2009 – an increase of 4.1 per cent – now accounts for 16 per cent of emissions worldwide. So although the Chinese did not overtake the US in carbon emissions until 2007, their share of the world total is now half as much again.

Between them, the two industrial giants produce 40 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases, and neither shows any sign of slowing down.

The figures, produced by the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, show another significant trend: India, the world's third-biggest carbon polluter, is rapidly catching up. In 2010, its annual emissions passed two billion tonnes of CO2 for the first time, totalling 2.06 billion tonnes. The increase of 178,330 million tonnes on the year before was 9.4 per cent, a growth rate now exceeding China's.

By contrast, Russia's emissions, the fourth highest, fell from 1.59 billion tonnes in 2009 to 1.38 billion tonnes in 2010 – a drop of 13 per cent.

The significance of the emissions growth is that none of the leading emitters is willing to sign a legally binding treaty for all countries to cut their greenhouse gases, still the stated aim of the UN climate negotiations.

At the UN climate conference that begins later this month in Durban, South Africa, Britain and the EU will continue to lead moves for a global climate treaty to replace the present Kyoto Protocol, which runs out at the end of next year. But with none of the major emitters interested in a new legal treaty, its present chances of being signed are zero. Britain's own emissions of CO2 in 2010, the figures indicate, were 493,000 million tonnes, up from 465,367 million tonnes in 2009 – an increase of 5.9 per cent.

These American calculations differ slightly from the Government's own provisional estimates, which show UK carbon emissions at 491.7 million tonnes for 2010, up from 473.7 million tonnes in 2009 – an increase of 3.8 per cent.

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