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Author: Tom Arup
Source: The Age
Date: 20 November, 2013

Global greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels reached the highest levels in human history last year, driven predominantly by Chinese growth, and are projected to surge even further in 2013.

New data from the Global Carbon Project – a team of international scientists who track global emissions – finds carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels and making cement grew 2.2 per cent in 2012 from the previous year. In 2013 a further 2.1 per cent rise is expected.

But the latest data suggests the world’s emissions could be slowing. The approximate 2 per cent growth in 2012 and 2013 falls short of the 3.1 per cent average annual rise since 2000.

CSIRO climate scientist Dr Pep Canadell – who is also executive director of the Global Carbon Project – told Fairfax Media the emissions rates of the past two years could be the tentative signs of a global slow down.

“But it is important to understand it is only a slow down in growth – emissions every year are still higher than the previous one. Two per cent growth is still a very large number,” he said.

Dr Canadell said that if current emissions trends continue the world would reach 2 degrees of global warming in about 30 years, a threshold regarded by scientists as triggering the worst impact of climate change.

The data comes as countries are meeting in Warsaw in the latest round of United Nations negotiations towards a new climate change treaty. Through the UN, countries have already agreed to the aim of keeping warming below 2 degrees.

If the Global Carbon Project projections hold then the world will emit 36 billion tonnes of CO2 from fossil fuels and making cement during 2013, an increase of 61 per cent from these sources above 1990 levels.

Fossil fuels and cement are responsible for 92 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with the rest coming from changes in land-use – such as cutting down forests.

Land-change emissions are harder to calculate due to the lack of data in some parts of the world, but the general trend since the late-1990s has been improving. The Global Carbon Project reports 3.1 billion tonnes of CO2 were emitted from land-use change in 2012, a rise on 2011.

The researchers found China was responsible for 71 per cent of the global rise in fossil fuel emissions in 2012. All up, Chinese CO2 emissions grew 6 per cent in 2012, and its annual total is now almost double the next largest contributor, the United States.

But the 6 per cent rise is slower than China’s growth in recent years, which hit 10 per cent in 2011. China has instituted a number of measures to try get its mammoth greenhouse gas emissions under control, including closing older industrial and coal power plants, subsidising renewable energy and even trialing emissions trading.

In 2012 China was responsible for 27 per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions. The United States was second with 14 per cent, the European Union third with 10 per cent and India following with 6 per cent. Australia is the 16th largest emitter, counting for around 1 per cent of world emissions.

In 2012 United States emissions fell by 3.7 per cent and European Union emissions fell 1.3 per cent. Indian emissions grew 7.7 per cent.

Australian emissions under Global Carbon Project numbers have bounced around in the past two years, rising 12 per cent in 2011, but falling 13 per cent in 2012.

But Dr Canadell said little can be made of the preliminary Australian numbers because of a lag in some data. He instead pointed to federal government numbers reporting Australian emissions largely flatlining in recent years.

Not all emissions find their way into the atmosphere. Between 2003 and 2012 the Global Carbon Project found about 27 per cent was captured in the oceans, 27 per cent was stored in land, and 45 per cent went into the atmosphere.