Record CO2 levels threaten 2 degree target

31st May 2011

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Limiting a rise in global temperatures to just 2ºC appears increasingly difficult in light of record levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide recorded by US scientists.

Data released from the Earth Systems Research Laboratory in Hawaii yesterday (31 May 2011) have confirmed that CO2 levels reached 394.97 parts per million, 1.6ppm greater than the previous record during 2010.

To meet the 2ºC target agreed at the 2010 UN climate change summit in Cancun, the long-term concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has to be limited to around 450ppm, a target that cannot be met if annual increases continue at current levels.

The news follows estimates from the International Energy Agency (IEA) that global CO2 emissions from the energy sector reached a new high during 2010. Initial IEA figures state that 30.6 gigatonnes were produced, a 5% increase from the last peak levels in 2008.

The figures revealed that 40% of emissions came from OECD countries, but that developing countries led by China and India were responsible for 75% of the increase in emissions.

The IEA has also estimated that 80% of the infrastructure to supply the world’s energy in 2020 is either in already place or currently under construction, leaving little room for manoeuvre in future.

“The world has edged incredibly close to the level of emissions that should not be reached until 2020 if the 2ºC target is to be attained,” said Dr Fatih Birol, IEA’s chief economist.

“Unless bold and decisive decisions are made very soon, it will be extremely challenging to succeed in achieving this global goal.”

The UN’s climate chief Christiana Figueres called the IEA’s figures a stark warning.

"This is the inconvenient truth of where human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are projected to go without much stronger international action now and into the future," she said.

Figueres is due to oversee the UN climate talks resuming next week in Bonn, where representatives of 189 government will meet in preparation for Durban conference in December.

“It is clear that [governments] need to push the world further down the right track to avoid dangerous climate change,” she said. “I won’t hear that this is impossible. Governments must make it possible for society, business and science to get this job done.”


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