Global warming: Bleaker and bleaker

New figures show we are still hurtling towards dangerous climate change - at a time when policymakers are running out of ideas

The Guardian,	 Monday 30 May 2011
Sometimes a quotation really does say it all. As chief economist of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol is not given to overstatement  so his comment in our paper today that the latest figures on greenhouse gas emissions are "the worst news" should be taken seriously. It is not just that the statistics showing another record leap in carbon output  30.6 gigatonnes of CO2 over 2010  to make the highest annual total in history are grim. They also come at a point when the old centrist certainties about how to tackle climate change are palpably out of date, and yet no new ideas have come along as replacement.

Over the past half-decade, three global-warming orthodoxies have pertained: the first diplomatic, the second economic, and the third industrial. The diplomatic orthodoxy was this: the best way to negotiate reductions in carbon emissions was the UN. That was the fairest forum, which allowed poorer, smaller countries a platform alongside the old economic behemoths. It could be effective, too: the 1989 Montreal protocol to phase out the use of CFCs and other ozone-harming substances had been described by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan as "perhaps the single most successful international agreement". Even the Kyoto treaty could be seen as a success, if you squinted hard enough. But then came Copenhagen in 2009, which was a flop. More negotiations take place at Durban this December, and already the British and the Americans are warning observers not to get their hopes up.

Economically, the optimists argued that the great recession of 2008-09 would give governments and industrialists a vital breathing space. A contracting world economy would naturally reduce carbon emissions, meantime, public and private sectors could strike a green new deal that would begin a shift towards low-carbon growth. Today's figures give the lie to all that: the link between GDP growth and greenhouse gases remains overwhelming. True, the distribution may have shifted eastwards since the Kyoto protocol  but that is partly because the west increasingly imports its manufactured goods. Finally, industrially, the great bet was that rich countries would wean themselves off fossil fuels and on to a mix of nuclear and renewables. Yet Fukushima has prompted Germany, Italy and Switzerland to mothball their nuclear power projects.

Today's figures, then, show a world still hurtling towards dangerous climate change  at a time when policymakers are out of solutions for slowing this process. "A nice utopia" is how Mr Birol describes the hope of keeping a rise in global temperatures below 2C. And if he thinks that, we should all be alarmed.