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Sustainable Energy

Surging Carbon Dioxide Shows Clean Tech Failure

Record levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide reflect a healthier economy, cheap fossil fuels, and the absence of effective carbon-reducing policies.

Substantial reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases are needed to stave off catastrophic climate change.

Wind, solar, and other clean energy technologies have sprouted around the world in recent years, and deployment surged in 2013. Yet taken together, they still failed to prevent 2013 from notching the largest single-year growth in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations since the mid-1980s.

The World Meteorological Organization reported this week that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere last year experienced the largest one-year spurt since 1984. With a jump of 2.9 parts per million, the year-average concentration now stands at 396 parts per million. That’s about 42 percent higher than in 1750, before humans began digging up and burning coal, oil, and natural gas at a vast scale.

The WMO concluded that part of the reason for the increased level of carbon dioxide could be a reduction in the capacity of the ocean to absorb carbon dioxide at the same rate as in the past.

But another major reason for the surge is clear: clean technology is failing to keep up with economic growth and commensurate energy use, says Howard Herzog, senior research engineer with the MIT Energy Initiative. “[The] economy’s doing well,” he says. “Fossil fuel technologies are still by far the cheapest energy source. And without any policy change, that is where the free market is taking us.”

Numbers for total human-caused emissions are still being calculated, but early indications suggest they did increase at a record level last year, says David Victor, who directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, San Diego. The fact that human emission are likely the primary cause of 2013’s surge in atmospheric carbon dioxide “is kind of not surprising,” Victor says, given strong recent economic growth and the  anemic action by the world’s governments.

In 2013, renewable power capacity did expand at its fastest pace to date, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Renewable power generation from sources like wind, solar, and hydroelectric power now makes up about 22 percent of the global electricity mix, up from 21 percent in 2012 and 18 percent in 2007.

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