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From Bad to Worse: Latest Figures on Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The U.N. says that even countries that vowed to cut pollution that causes global warming are churning out more of it
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©Kimberly Deprey/istockphoto.com

The 38 countries that pledged to restrain their emissions of climate change–inducing greenhouse gases, most notably carbon dioxide (CO2), are failing, according to new figures released today. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the body charged with overseeing global emission reduction efforts, says that, overall, greenhouse emissions—measured in terms of the most ubiquitous: carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)—dropped by 894 million metric tons between 1990 and 2006 (the latest year for which figures are available).

But the UNFCCC found that emissions had grown by 2.3 percent—403 million metric tons of CO2e—from 2000 to 2006, and that the 16-year dip was due entirely to the drop in economic activity (factory and power plant shutdowns) in former Eastern bloc countries such as Russia after the 1989 fall of communist governments, which led to a decline of more than two billion metric tons of CO2e emissions. Those countries' economies have recovered since 2000, leading to an increase in CO2e emissions of some 258 million metric tons, according to UNFCCC.

Most industrialized European nations as well as China and the U.S. (which have not agreed to any emissions' reductions) have been spewing more carbon dioxide since 1990—up in total some 403 million metric tons of CO2e from 2000 levels.

The UNFCCC cautions that emissions may be even worse now, noting that the statistics in the study are already nearly three years old. "UNFCCC expert review teams need two years to verify the data, partly by traveling to the countries concerned," says UNFCCC spokesman John Hay. "This makes the UNFCCC data not the freshest, but the most reliable on the market."

The U.K. and the Principality of Monaco are the only two European countries that, after pledging to reduce emissions (by 12.5 percent and 8 percent, respectively) by 2012, appear to be on track. In contrast, Austria, which vowed in 2002 to cut emissions by over the next 10 years 13 percent below 1990 levels, is instead pumping out 15 percent more CO2e than it did in 1990. Likewise, Japan is now emitting over 6 percent more greenhouse gases now than in 1990 despite a promise in 2002 to reduce them by 6 percent by 2012.

Even countries allowed to emit more greenhouse gases under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol (an international treaty to reduce emissions) to allow further economic development have nearly doubled their allowed growth. Ireland, for example, has seen greenhouse gas emissions grow by nearly 26 percent when, under the terms of the treaty, they should only rise by 13 percent.

The treaty signatories have until 2012 to get their acts together. If they continue to exceed their limits by that date, they will be suspended from international carbon trading, which currently allows them to purchase cheaper emission reductions from developing countries in lieu of reducing their own; instead, they would be required to achieve 1.3 times the missed reduction in future years.

World governments are set to gather next month in Poznan, Poland, to continue negotiations on a binding international agreement to cut globe-warming greenhouse gases after 2012—a so-called successor to the Kyoto Protocol currently in force.

Under the Bush administration, the U.S. has participated in such talks without accepting a binding emissions reduction target. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. emitted nearly six billion metric tons of CO2 last year, up from roughly five billion metric tons in 1990. It remains to be seen how the incoming Obama administration will proceed, though on the stump the president-elect pledged to cut U.S. emissions to 80 percent below present levels by 2050.

When releasing today's report, UNFCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer stressed the importance of negotiating a new and binding agreement to cut climate change pollution. "The figures clearly underscore the urgency for the U.N. negotiating process to make good progress in Poznan and move forward quickly in designing a new agreement to respond to the challenge of climate change," he said. He also noted that President-elect Obama would not attend.

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