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Will recovering global economy thwart efforts to curb global warming?

A UN agency reports that as the global economy began to recover from the recession, carbon emissions surged to a new record, imperiling measures to contain global warming.

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“You've got a certain amount of running room in terms of what you can emit into the atmosphere by mid century,” explains Alden Myer, a veteran climate-policy specialist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. “If you use almost all of that up by 2020, technically you might be able to achieve the 2050 goal by crashing emissions to zero in the following couple of decades, but politically and economically, that's not going to happen.”

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Indeed, as countries try to lay the groundwork for Durban, now is the time to begin the trajectory that bites into the growth in emissions, Mr. Myer says, “but the reality is there's no consensus on how to divide up” the emissions pie “and how to deal with the up-front economic costs” in ways that give developing countries and advanced economies a mutually agreeable strategy for meeting a 2-degree goal.

Figures from the IEA report highlight the challenge.

The 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, made up largely of countries from North America and Europe, plus a small handful of Asian nations, accounted for 40 percent of emissions and 25 percent of emissions growth last year. Countries outside the OECD, with China in the lead, experienced “even stronger increases,” according to the report.

Still, on a per-capita basis, China emitted only 5.8 tons per person and India 1.5 tons per person, compared with 10 tons per person averaged over all OECD countries.

These are the kinds of numbers that fuel the ongoing debates between developed and developing nations over what represents a fair and equitable apportionment of any emissions reductions countries ultimately agree to implement.

Even as diplomats haggle over emissions and over implementation of other aspects of last December's Cancun agreements, several countries are embarking on policy experiments that bear on the decarbonization issue, Dr. Pielke says.

He points to Germany's decision to shut down its nuclear power plants by 2022, for instance, as well as Japan's looming decisions on nuclear energy following March 11's devastating earthquake and tsunami.

In Germany, chancellor Angela Merkel's announcement appears to mark the confluence of Fukushima and German politics. In upcoming elections, the country second strongest party is the seriously anti-nuclear Green Party, which is expected to poll well. This likely would force a coalition between Ms. Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party and the Greens, if she wants to retain office.

The question facing the country is how it will replace the electricity generated from its nuclear plants. Will it burn coal, increasing its emissions? Will it buy nuclear energy from France or Czechoslovakia?

“Renewables just aren't ready to fill the gap,” Pielke says.

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