The cost of ignoring warnings

The world is losing its battle in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a threat some countries refuse to acknowledge while taking one step forward and two steps back in the never-ending pursuit of beefing up an economy.

The world is losing its battle in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a threat some countries refuse to acknowledge while taking one step forward and two steps back in the never-ending pursuit of beefing up an economy.

That’s the perspective of the U.S. Department of Energy, which reports that global output of heat-trapping carbon dioxide jumped last year by the biggest amount on record. That’s frightening. What does it take to get the message across?

The U.S. department says the 2010 levels of greenhouse gas emissions were higher than the worst-case scenario outlined by scientists four years ago.

It’s a “monster increase” that’s unheard of, said Greg Marland, professor of geology at Appalachian State University, who has helped calculate the Energy Department’s figures in the past.

The new figures show “how feeble” the world’s efforts are at slowing man-made global warming, say scientists.

Last year, the world pumped about 564 million more tonnes of carbon into the air than it did in 2009 — an increase of six per cent. China, the United States and India were ranked as the world’s top producers of greenhouse gases.

Extra pollution spewed by China and the U.S. accounted for more than half the increase in 2010.

“The more we talk about the need to control emissions, the more they are growing,” said John Reilly, co-director of a joint program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

China’s manufacturing industry is growing in leaps and bounds. That’s good news for a country that has become one of the world’s economic giants. But that progress comes with a price — increased use of burning coal, the biggest carbon source worldwide. Emissions from coal burning jumped by nearly eight per cent in 2010.

China is not alone. Industries across the globe depend on coal. Some Canadian provinces, Alberta included, rely heavily on coal-fired energy to produce electricity. It’s a catch-22 situation.

“The good news is that these economies are growing rapidly so everyone ought be for that, right?” Reilly asked sarcastically.

“Broader economic improvements in poor countries have been bringing living improvements to people. Doing it with increasing reliance on coal is imperilling the world.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its last large report on global warming in 2007, saying the rate of global warming coincides with the rate of pollution. The panel forecast that global temperatures, based on trends at that time, would rise between 2.2C and 6.1C by the end of the century, with the best estimate being 3C.

But in the last four years, the trend of emissions has changed dramatically, something the climate panel didn’t bank on. Today, the picture is even more bleak.

Latest figures put global emissions higher than the worst-case projections from the climate panel in 2007, said Tom Boden, director of the U.S. Energy Department’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre.

In the face of skeptics who shrug off global warming as ridiculous and label scientists as alarmists, Reilly counters that scientists have found their predictions in the past “too conservative.”

Burying your head in the sand does not make the problem go away. Apathy makes it worse.

“We are building up a horrible legacy for our children and grandchildren,” observes Granger Morgan, head of the engineering and public policy department at Carnegie Mellon University.

And if the world doesn’t finally get it, “the problem is going to be running away from us,” said Victoria, B.C., climate scientist Andrew Weaver. “And the problem is pretty close to running away from us.”

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.

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