Future Earth

Carbon emissions: prepare for a carbon-choked future

0 Comments 17 June 2011

Have you seen the latest carbon emissions data released by the International Energy Agency? Unfortunately it makes for depressing reading. After a slight reduction in carbon emissions in 2009, carbon emissions surged by 5% in 2010 to reach an almighty 31.6 gigatonnes. So much for the worst recession in 80 years, which was supposed to cut our carbon emissions and suppress our energy usage!

A gigatonne sounds big, very big, but I can never really appreciate the scale of certain measurements until they are expressed in zeros. So here goes.

A gigatonne is the equivalent of 1,000,000,000 tonnes. This means that collectively, we spewed almost 32,000,000,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere last year: a record amount for humanity.

That level was not expected to be reached until 2020, so carbon emissions are already as high as they were expected to be 10 years from now. This timeframe was mandated by the International Energy Agency, as the minimum output required to provide us with a fighting chance of keeping within the temperature rises likely to result from increased carbon emissions.

Without sounding defeatist, I really don’t see how mankind can achieve cuts to carbon emissions if we continue as we are. There are two inescapable truths:

  1. 80% of the carbon emissions increase in 2010 came from developing countries. As those countries become more and more industrialised, their carbon emissions will continue to rise. On a per capita basis, OECD countries produce 11 tonnes of carbon emissions, while China and India emit 5.8 tonnes and 1.8 tonnes respectively. So there’s still plenty of room for growth there! What’s more, the surge in carbon emissions in places like the Far East is being driven by Western countries’ outsourced manufacturing. Consequently, citizens of those countries want to better their lot in life, which means more “stuff”, and greatly increased energy consumption.
  2. One third or 11,200,000,000 of these carbon emissions are “locked in”. In other words, they are created by power stations that either exist or are being built. These power stations will continue to belch their fumes into the atmosphere until they are decommissioned halfway through the century. Given the current crisis in the nuclear industry, with many countries announcing moratoria on further nuclear power development, this may turn out to be a conservative estimate.

The hard reality is that we are not going to hit our carbon emissions targets.

Not a chance. That much is certain.

Now I don’t mean that we should stop trying, but maybe we, and especially our kids, should start preparing for a world that will be irrevocably changed for the worse. We should expect sea levels to rise and learn to live with extreme forms of weather that will be much colder, hotter, drier, windier and wetter for longer than we have ever experienced in the past.

We have read about these concerns for years now but, at the very least, the increase in our carbon emissions will have effects that will disrupt food production, involve mass migration and regional conflicts. The list is wearyingly long.

Am I being alarmist? I don’t think so, unless I’m missing something.

So what can we do about this on a practical level? I had a few thoughts:

  • Avoid the coast. If sea temperatures rise by as much as predicted, you don’t want to be too close to the ocean. If you are, make sure you are high up.
  • Even if you are inland, be careful. If you are thinking of buying a house, I would study flood plains in great detail and ensure I was as high above the waterline as possible.
  • Sell your overseas holiday home. The weather abroad will probably get worse and the UK is getting warmer. Who needs to holiday away from home anymore?
  • Get into technology, particularly communications. We are likely to travel less, but there are alternatives to being physically present.
  • I can definitely see a swing back to local existences. It makes sense: travel will be harder, there will be less holidaying abroad and more things will be made locally. This would be hugely ironic, given the current pressure to do just that!

I am sure there are other things that we could do to cut our emissions and aim to preserve the world as we know it. Does anyone have any other ideas?

This post was selected for Everything Home Blog Carnival Welcomes Summer, hosted by My DIY Home Tips.

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