Carbon dioxide emissions hit global record high in ’11

Rapid growth makes warming goal hard to reach

International and local activists demonstrated over the weekend at the UN climate talks in Doha, Qatar.
Osama Faisal/Associated Press
International and local activists demonstrated over the weekend at the UN climate talks in Doha, Qatar.

NEW YORK — Global emissions of carbon dioxide were at a record high in 2011 and are likely to take a similar jump in 2012, scientists reported Sunday — the latest indication that efforts to limit such emissions are failing.

Emissions continue to grow so rapidly that an international goal of limiting the ultimate warming of the planet to 3.6 degrees, established three years ago, is on the verge of becoming unattainable, said researchers affiliated with the Global Carbon Project.

Josep G. Canadell, a scientist in Australia who leads that program, said Sunday that salvaging the goal, if it can be done at all, ‘‘requires an immediate, large and sustained global mitigation effort.’’


In 2011, nearly 38.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide were emitted into the air worldwide from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, according to new calculations published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change. That is about a billion tons more than the previous year.

Get Ground Game in your inbox:
Daily updates and analysis on national politics from James Pindell.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The total for last year amounts to more than 2.4 million pounds of carbon dioxide released into the air every second. The majority of the increase was from China, according to the report.

Despite a formal treaty pledging to limit warming to 3.6 degrees — and 20 years of negotiations aimed at putting it into effect — nations around the world have shown little appetite for the kinds of controls required to accomplish their stated aims.

Delegates from nearly 200 nations are meeting in Doha, Qatar, for the latest round of talks under the treaty, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Their agenda is modest this year, with no new emissions targets and little progress expected on a protocol that is supposed to be concluded in 2015 and take effect in 2020.

Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the climate convention, said the global negotiations were necessary but were not sufficient to tackle the problem.


‘‘We won’t get an international agreement until enough domestic legislation and action are in place to begin to have an effect,’’ she said in an interview. ‘‘Governments have to find ways in which action on the ground can be accelerated and taken to a higher level, because that is absolutely needed.’’

The new figures show that emissions are falling, slowly, in some of the most advanced countries, including the United States and Germany. That apparently reflects a combination of economic weakness, the transfer of some manufacturing to developing countries, and conscious efforts to limit emissions, like the renewable power targets that many American states have set.

The boom in the natural gas supply from hydraulic fracturing is also a factor, since natural gas is supplanting coal at many power stations, leading to lower emissions.

But the decline of emissions in the developed countries is more than matched by continued growth in developing countries like China and India, the new figures show. Coal, the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, is growing the fastest, with coal-related emissions leaping more than 5 percent in 2011 compared with the previous year.

“If we’re going to run the world on coal, we’re in deep trouble,’’ said Gregg H. Marland, a scientist at Appalachian State University who has tracked emissions for decades.


Overall, global emissions jumped 3 percent in 2011 and are expected to jump another 2.6 percent in 2012, researchers reported Sunday in separate studies in Nature and another journal. It has become routine to set new emissions records each year, although the global economic crisis led to a brief decline in 2009.

‘If we’re going to run the world on coal, we’re in deep trouble.’

The level of carbon dioxide, the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, has increased about 41 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Scientists fear it could double or triple before emissions are brought under control. The temperature of the planet has increased about 1.5 degrees since 1850.

Further increases in carbon dioxide are likely to have a profound effect on climate, scientists say, leading to higher seas, greater coastal flooding, and more intense weather dis­asters.