Carbon emissions have nearly doubled in the past 20 years, according to figures published by researchers at the University of East Anglia.
The study suggests the globe is heading towards a "worst case" scenario, with current trends leading to a temperature increase of between 4C and 6C by 2100. Scientist predict that any increase above 2C would prove catastrophic for the planet.
Called the Global Carbon Project, the research shows a 5.9% rise in emissions in 2010, while on average the years between 2000 and 2010 saw a 3.1% increase, far higher than throughout the 1990s.
Caused by the burning of fossil fuels, cement production and deforestation, emissions levels reached an unprecedented 10 billion tonnes last year. Adding to the recent increase is the emergence of developing nations, particularly China and Indian, who are first and third biggest contributors to emissions, with the US, Russia and the European Union coming in second, fourth and fifth.
In Britain, carbon emissions increased by 3.8% in 2010, but remain 14% lower than the country’s output in 1990. However, when taking into account emissions from the trade of goods and services produced in emerging economies but consumed in the UK, emissions for Britain have risen a staggering 46% from 1990 levels.
According to Professor Corinne Le Quéré, co-author of the report, current global CO2 emissions trends are such that the globe will “far exceed two degrees warming by 2100.”
“Yet governments have pledged to keep warming below two degrees to avoid the most dangerous aspects of climate change such as widespread water stress and sea level rise, and increases in extreme climatic events,” she warned, adding: “Taking action to reverse current trends is urgent.”
In 2008-2009, emissions decreased due to the global financial crisis, but the drop was only temporary as developed countries continued to outsource part of their emissions to emerging economies through international trade. Previous recessions precipitated a dip in carbon emissions, which lasted for several years. The dip following the recent financial collapse lasted only one year.
“Many saw the global financial crisis as an opportunity to move the global economy away from persistent and high emissions growth, but the return to emissions growth in 2010 suggests the opportunity was not exploited,” said Dr Glen Peters, of the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Norway and lead author of the study.
The figures, published on Sunday, come as the UN Climate Change conference in Durban reaches its halfway point. On Saturday, UN climate official Christiana Figueres told the Associated Press that she expected countries attending the conference to pledge to continue cutting emissions beyond 2012, the date for the end of the Kyoto Protocols, signed in 1997.
"Countries are here these two weeks exactly talking about how they are going to go into a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol," said Figueres. "The discussion this week is not about the 'if,' it's about the 'how.' That doesn't mean that we are out of the thick of it," she said.
However, even maintaining the levels of the Kyoto agreement beyond 2012 is unlikely to lead to the large drop in carbon emissions scientists say would be required to reverse the climate change process.
On Friday, thousand of activists marched past the conference centre in Durban to highlight the urgency of the situation. "It's all about our future. It's calling for a sustainable future. We've got to act and we've actually got to act urgently, so that we put this planet back onto a sustainable path," said Bishop Jeff Davies, leading the march.
Inside the conference hall, there was some cause for optimism with signals from China suggesting that it would be open to setting caps on its emissions by 2020. Leading up to the conference, China and India had refused to negotiate on a new deal, preferring renewal of the existing agreement, which does not constrain developing countries to emissions targets - the major reason why the US refused to sign on to Kyoto.
However, India has shown no willingness to shift its position, presenting a major stumbling block to the success of the conference. Despite being the world's second most populous country, Indian negotiators have so far refused to countenance any agreement that that would conscript every country to reduce emissions, as it would hinder India's rapidly growing economy.
Russia, Japan and Canada are equally steadfast, demanding a new agreement that shares the burden equally among all nations.
The European Union, the only major block to be emitting less than its Kyoto targets, is so far playing mediator, asking that all the major global polluters sign up to a binding agreement on emission reduction but with a willingness to negotiate.
On Monday, 340 companies from 38 countries signed a 2C Challenge Communiqué, calling on governments act urgently to halt climate change. The communiqué is to be presented to delegates in Durban to highlight the importance of acting before the window for keeping global warming to less than 2C closes.
According to a recent report by The International Energy Agency, the increase in carbon emissions over the past twenty years means the globe will pass the tipping point for maintaining climate change below 2C by 2017.
Speaking to The Huffington Post UK, Ross Mountain, a former United Nations specialist on humanitarian and peacekeeping operations, warned that climate change is already upon us, with climate vulnerable areas, such as the Maldives, Tuvalu and Bangladesh, already suffering the effects.
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