News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Global Carbon Emissions Reach Record High

Here's some sobering news for anyone who's worried about what the world will be like when today's toddlers have grandchildren: global human society is now releasing two million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each second, according to a study just published in the journal Nature Climate Change. That's an increase of three percent over last year's frighteningly high emissions levels, and climatologists are starting to conclude that there's no way we can limit global warming to 2° Celsius unless we drastically cut emissions right now.

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The majority of the increase in emissions comes from China. According to related stories out last week, that growing nation may not start to reduce its carbon emissions for another two decades. By 2030, China's carbon emissions could be as much as 40 percent more than their present-day levels.

China is the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Of the world's ten top climate polluters, only the U.S. -- currently at #2 -- and Germany reduced their emissions last year.

Two million tons per second of CO2 is a daunting, but somewhat impenetrable figure. For comparison's sake, a small car getting about 40 mpg driven about 1,000 miles in a month will emit about 3.5 tons of CO2 per year.

Here's another way to look at it. If you've got a typical SUV that gets about 15 mpg, and you drive 2,000 miles each month, and you're worried about climate change so you get rid of it and use a bicycle for a year, that act keeps almost 19 tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere. And let's say you're so stoked that you start a campaign to get other SUV owners to do the same thing, and before long you have 100,000 people who've given up their land yachts for bicycles for a year.

You and your 100,000 friends have just postponed Climate Change Apocalypse by a little bit under one second.

Which doesn't mean that individual contributions to lowering carbon emissions aren't important: they are, and 7 billion individual contributions from people around the world will add up. And some of the most easily reduced CO2 emissions come in larger "chunks" that each individual commuter's contribution.

For instance, The Natural Resources Defense Council today said that President Obama could reduce U.S. emissions from power plants by one-third in the next 13 years, without Congress' approval, by enforcing existing provisions of the Clean Air Act. The group called for Obama to allow the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set state-specific emissions rates and give states flexibility to implement them. The EPA already has the legal authority to set those rates state-by-state.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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