The International Energy Agency’s latest report, released at the end of May, underlines the uphill struggle the international community faces in its efforts to limit global warming. Although carbon-dioxide emissions dipped in 2009 due to the financial crisis, in 2010 they smashed the 29.3 gigaton record set in 2008, reaching 30.6 gt — an increase of 5 percent.

Just last December world leaders agreed to a target limiting global temperature increase to 2 Celsius by 2020 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico. Key to this goal was limiting global energy-related emissions to 32 gt by 2020. But achieving this target means emissions must rise less in total over the next 10 years than they did between 2009 and 2010. As IEA chief economist Dr. Fatih Birol states, the estimated increase in CO² emissions in 2010 “represents a serious setback.”

According to the IEA, in 2010 OECD countries were responsible for 40 percent of global emissions, but these countries accounted for just 25 percent of emission growth compared with 2009. Emissions emitted by non-OECD countries — led by India and China — increased sharply as their economic growth picked up. Forty-four percent of the estimated CO² emissions came from coal, 36 percent from oil and 20 percent from natural gas.

Dr. Birol says that “unless bold and decisive decisions are made soon, it will be extremely challenging” to meet the Cancun target. But just what those decisions should be remains unclear. Countries must strike a balance between limiting CO² emissions while improving economic conditions and living standards — a delicate tightrope act in the best of times, and far more difficult during downturns.

Japan had planned to limit its CO² emissions by using nuclear power to produce 50 percent of its electricity by 2030. The Fukushima nuclear disaster, however, has thrown this plan awry. Renewable energy sources will play a greater role in the future, but it will be years before they make a significant contribution to the nation’s power supply. In the short term, it may be best to focus on the development of technologies to curb emissions and on power conservation.

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