News that climate-warming gas emissions are increasing faster than expected means that the world must put a stop to building new coal-fired power stations as soon as possible, in order to prevent future emissions being "locked in" for decades.
Greenhouse gas emissions reached a record high in 2010, said the International Energy Agency over the weekend, although their website provides few details at present.
The IEA's Dr Fatih Birol, Chief Economist at the IEA who oversees the annual World Energy Outlook, said that after a dip in 2009 caused by the global financial crisis, emissions are estimated to have climbed to a record 30.6 Gigatonnes (Gt), a 5% jump from the previous record year in 2008, when levels reached 29.3 Gt.
This means that it will now be extremely hard for the world to limit the projected future average global temperature rise to less than 2°C, the target agreed by global leaders at the UN climate change talks in Cancun in 2010.
For this target to be achieved, global energy-related emissions in 2020 must not be greater than 32 Gt. Therefore over the next ten years, emissions must rise less in total than they did between 2009 and 2010, a virtually impossible demand.
If true, this is very frightening. “Our latest estimates are another wake-up call,” said Dr Birol. “The world has edged incredibly close to the level of emissions that should not be reached until 2020 if the 2ºC target is to be attained. Given the shrinking room for manœuvre in 2020, unless bold and decisive decisions are made very soon, it will be extremely challenging to succeed in achieving this global goal agreed in Cancun.”
The IEA's report highlights current construction worldwide of fossil fuel burning plants as a major cause for concern, estimating that 80% of projected emissions from the power sector in 2020 are already locked in, as they will come from power plants that are currently in place or under construction today.
Coal is the biggest GHG emitter, globally; 44% of the estimated global CO2 emissions in 2010 came from coal, 36% from oil, and 20% from natural gas.
Paradoxically, with the German government now committed to abandoning nuclear power by 2021 - good news in one respect - there is a real danger that carbon emissions will increase in the short term.
Chancellor Merkel said on Monday that her country is still committed to its goal of reducing its carbon emissions by 20% of 1990 levels by 2020. But it has yet to set out how it can reconcile these two opposing policies.
It will be extremely demanding, involving substantial demand reductions through greater efficiency, while temporarily increasing emissions from fossil-fuel burning plants to make up the shortfall caused by the mothballed nuclear plants.
And unfortunately Germany is currently set to build 10 coal-fired power plants, which will lock in emissions for decades to come.
These new plants would emit 69.4Mt of C02 a year, over 25% of its electricity sector's 2008 total carbon dioxide emissions.
China, India, Poland and many other countries are also building new coal-fired power stations at an unprecedented rate.
If this trend continues, even a catastrophic three degree average global temperature rise may become inevitable.
It's imperative that the world agrees as soon as possible to leave coal in the ground, to stop burning it and oil for electricity, and to gradually wean itself off the most carbon-intensive forms of energy.