Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

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.

Cut off? Read unlimited articles today.

Become an Insider
Already an Insider? Log in.

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Sustainable Energy

Can we sustainably provide food, water, and energy to a growing population during a climate crisis?

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

    Bimonthly digital/PDF edition

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special interest publications

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

  • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.