When US president Barack Obama unveiled his Clean Power Plan this weekend it put climate change firmly back into the media limelight and into public conscience.
The plan, if implemented, would see greenhouse gas emissions by power plants reduced by a third (compared to 2005 levels) and require US states and utility companies to rely more on wind power, solar energy or natural gas with a correlating reduction on coal reliance. According to Mr Obama the plan marks "the single most important step America has ever taken in the fight against global climate change”.
“When the world faces its toughest challenges, America leads the way forward," he added, a statement which may have rubbed some up the wrong way given that, up until 10 years ago, America was the world’s highest CO2 polluter (China took over this dubious title in 2006 and has out-polluted America every year since).
However, the US remained the second-largest emitter of CO2 in the world in 2013 (the latest year for which figures are available) and is among the worst 10 polluting countries per capita. This means that, were it implemented, the plan would mark a significant reduction in emissions.
China v US
Worldwide the amount of carbon dioxide emitted has grown year-on-year for the past two decades. However, among all the countries worldwide it is the increase in the scale of China’s emissions over the past decade that is most striking. According to the Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) China effectively doubled its carbon emissions in the 10 years to 2013 (although in terms of CO2 emissions per capita China ranks much lower than the US).
According to NASA’s climate research agency the data shows that “levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere are higher than they have been at any time in the past 400,000 years...This recent relentless rise in CO2 shows a remarkably constant relationship with fossil-fuel burning, and can be well accounted for based on the simple premise that about 60 percent of fossil-fuel emissions stay in the air.”
The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio published a striking time sequence graphic (view it here), which was built using temperature analysis from more than 1,000 meteorological stations around the world, satellite observations of sea-surface temperature and Antarctic research station measurements and other metrics. It found that the global temperature for 2014 was the warmest since 1880 and that the earth is around 0.85 degrees warmer now than it was a century ago.
So how is Ireland faring? The latest available data from the Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) shows that Ireland's emissions reached peak levels between 2006 and 2008 just before the Celtic Tiger bubble burst.
However, between 2011 and 2013 the levels of carbon dioxide being produced here have fallen to below those recorded in 1998/1999.
Despite this an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report published earlier this year predicted that, even under the best-case scenario Ireland would not meet EU targets for a 20 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.
Given that carbon dioxide rates tend to slow during a recession and grow again during economic recovery the director-general of the EPA Laura Burke warned that Ireland was “not on track” to becoming a low-carbon economy, adding that it would become “an even more pressing challenge as the economy begins to improve”.
However, with the US apparently taking the lead scientists and academics will be hoping that Obama’s plan can overcome political and legal challenges promised by certain US States and energy companies and that its implementation will continue when he leaves the White House after the 2016 US presidential election. “We’re the first generation to feel the effects of climate change, and the last generation that can do something about it,” Mr Obama said on launching the plan.
“We only get one planet. There is no Plan B”.