Climate Change Risk Looms as 2 Degree Limit Now Unlikely

Limiting global average temperatures to within 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is now considered "unlikely" With global greenhouse hitting a record high in 2011 and 2012 on track to break that record, the prospects of limiting average atmospheric global warming to within a 2 degree Celsius rise from pre-industrial is now considered unlikely according to the Emissions Gap Report from the U.N. Environment Programme. The report warns that even if nations adhere to their strickest current reduction goals, CO2 output won’t be reduced in time to stop runaway global warming in the coming decades.

Scientists from the Global Carbon Project (GCP) estimate CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels in 2012 will exceed 1990 levels by as much as 58 percent. In 2011 38.2 billion tons of CO2 was pumped in the atmosphere – equal to 2.4 million pounds every second. Clearly, even as another international climate summit winds down yet another annual round of negotiations on limiting global greenhouse gas output, the world has its foot hard on the gas, racing toward the cliff of unknown consequences.

“We find that current emission trends continue to track scenarios that lead to the highest temperature increases,” scientists from GCP wrote in an analysis published earlier this week in the journal Nature Climate Change. “Further delay in global mitigation makes it increasingly difficult to stay below 2 degrees Celsius.”

China CO2 emissions skyrocket

Analysis from the GCP shows China as the world’s largest emitter, with CO2 emissions shooting up 1o percent last year to 10 billion tons. Also among the world’s largest emitters, India’s emissions rose 7 percent, Russia’s by 3 percent, Japan 0.4 percent, Iran 2 percent, South Korea 4 percent, Canada 2 percent and South Africa up by 2 percent. Both Germany and the United States reduced their emissions with Germany down 4 percent to 0.8 billion tons of CO2 and the U.S. down 2 percent to 5.9 billion tons. Overall, global CO2 emissions grew 3 percent in 2011.

COP 15 and two degrees

It was three years ago at the much-anticipated and ultimately disappointing COP 15 climate conference that 200 nations set the 2 degree Celsius target as the limit in average temperature rise required to avert the worst possible consequences of global warming. Some nations, particularly small island nations living under a very real existential threat from rising sea levels, proposed an even more ambitions limit of 1.5 degree C. Since then some halting progress was made at subsequent climate conferences, but without a dramatic, rapid, and bold shift in real global greenhouse gas reductions, it is too little and very soon too late.

Taking our foot off the gas

The door is closing on avoiding the worst potential of a destabilized climate. “We are losing control of our ability to get a handle on the global warming problem.,” says Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist from the University of Victoria in Canada. Even now it is unlikely that climate mitigation, even if dramatically scaled up in the next few years, will be enough without significant adaptation. We are in a world of new normals and unintended consequences. But rather than letting ourselves sink into denial and pessimism, we should face the reality before us as a challenge and an opportunity. With enough commitment from governments and grassroots advocacy, dramatic transformation can occur.

Like the unprecedented transformation of the mid-twentieth century known as the Great Acceleration, we still have within our grasp the capability to avert not all, but perhaps the worst consequences of climate change. Solutions are available, what is needed is the formidable will to heal our relationship with the planet and with ourselves.

It’s time to take our foot off the gas.

Image credit: romainguy, courtesy flickr



Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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