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How the financial crisis barely dented carbon emissions

Carbon dioxide emissions always sag at times of major economic crisis, as the world’s industry pauses for breath. The oil crisis of the late 1970s, the recession of the early 1980s, the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991 — all of them dampened global CO2 output. The global financial crisis of 2008–2009 was no exception. But as an analysis published today in Nature Climate Change and also at the Global Carbon Project’s website notes, carbon emissions have already rebounded as if the crisis never happened. The recovery has been more rapid than from any other economic downturn in the past half-century (see chart, adapted from Nature Climate Change).

The actual figures aren’t news: the 5.9% rise* in last year’s CO2 emissions has already been reported at least three times. In May, the International Energy Agency estimated the new record, and there was a more detailed analysis in September by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. In November, the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, a group housed by the US Department of Energy, put out its analysis, which attracted worldwide media headlines, along with commentary that the present rate of emissions was greater than the worst-case scenario envisaged in a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

What’s new in this analysis is that it puts the recovery in context with previous global crises. It also updates a novel type of carbon dioxide accounting pioneered by lead author Glen Peters, who is at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway. Usually, and under the Kyoto Protocol, carbon dioxide emissions are attributed to the country that produces them. Yet rich countries have largely achieved cuts in CO2 emissions since 1990 by importing goods made elsewhere. Around one-fifth of China’s emissions, for example, comes from making goods demanded by consumers in other nations.

If you count the CO2 emissions embodied in final consumer demand, the study shows, Kyoto’s ‘developed’ (Annex B) countries are consuming more carbon dioxide now than they did in 1990 — although they report cuts in domestic production. Even so, 2009 marked the first time that developing countries consumed more carbon dioxide than developed countries.

The crisis may not have fully passed, and it’s too early to tell whether the green stimulus packages introduced in recent years will have a positive impact, the study says. For the moment it’s sobering to think that the pain caused by the financial crisis made but a small dent in global CO2 emissions.

*not including the CO2 emitted due to changes in land use, such as deforestation. This adds another 0.5% to the rise.

For other climate change news out today, read ‘Independent study quantifies human influence on global warming’


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