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The Fossil Fuel-Economic Complex: Something's Going to Give

Despite all the political rhetoric, the bottom line hasn’t changed: Carbon emissions are increasing in every corner of the planet. This is largely due to the fact that the global economy is so unequivocally tied to fossil fuel consumption.

In 2009, a drop in emissions left casual observers optimistic that the transition from a carbon-intensive economy may be starting to take shape.  But, as many analysts pointed out, and a recent report from the Worldwatch Institute confirms, the exact opposite was happening.

The dip in emissions was related to a dip in economic activity.  Slashing emissions came at the expense of people’s financial well-being.  Worldwatch President Robert Engelman sums up the situation quite well:  “We gained a short respite from increases in CO2 emissions–but only at the cost of an economic downturn.  Now we are rebounding economically–at the cost of once again accelerating the approach of a high-risk warming that the world’s nations have so far been unable to address.”

Unable or unwilling?  Moving to a low carbon economy will not happen in a day, but technology exists for low-carbon energy resources to be contributing a significantly greater amount to the energy pie right now. 

For example, the United States, the world’s richest nation, has yet to have an offshore wind turbine generate a single megawatt of energy, despite the fact the country is flush with offshore wind resources.  Wind energy is considered a mature renewable technology, and offshore wind turbines are in wide use, especially in Europe.  Instead, the country’s first offshore wind farm proposal, Cape Wind, has been embroiled in an eleven year political battle.

Currently, 70% of the carbon emissions result from burning fossil fuels for energy use — electricity generation, transportation, manufacturing, and construction.  In 2010, as the economy recovered, global levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide increased by 5.8%, an unprecedented growth rate.

Much of the blame is pointed in the direction of China and India these days.  And, for good reason.  Buoyed by globalization and exponential economic development these two countries are increasingly becoming energy hogs.  In China, for instance, one new coal-fired power plant has been constructed every week since 2008.  Developing nations saw their emissions grow 7.8% in 2010.

China has become the world’s largest emitter.  However, that statement only tells half the story.  Per capita China is the 61st largest carbon emitter.  On the other hand, the U.S., which is the second largest emitter, ranks 10th overall per capita.  Emissions are not only growing in developing nations, but also industrialized nations — in 2010, developed nations carbon emissions grew 3.4%.  And, finally, China has also become the world’s largest investor in clean energy.

To put it simply, the status-quo around economic activity and energy policy is not doing the job.  In 2011, global carbon dioxide levels reached an historic high of 391.3 parts per million (ppm), up from 388.6 ppm in 2010, and 280 ppm in pre-industrial times.

The clamor around the fossil fuel industry has continued to ratchet up.  Whether it is hydraulic fracturing in America’s Marcellus Shale, offshore oil drilling in the Arctic, oil sands production in Alberta, or coal and oil production for export to energy hungry places like India and China–the number of voices in the debate is growing.  Energy has become a key campaign issue, not only in the United States, but in countries across the globe.

If statistics tell us anything, it is that without political will, carbon emissions will not decline and the economy will remain tethered to increasingly rare and toxic resources.

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