Record-Breaking Carbon Emissions Mean The Economy Has Recovered But We’re Still Screwed

Stock prices, consumer spending, and carbon emissions have all rebounded now that the economy is back on track. Until we find a way to “decouple” growth from pollution, we’ll be forced to choose between poverty and the planet.


Ethonomic Indicator of the Day: 30.6 gigatons–the carbon emitted worldwide in 2010, a record high.

In one of the more unsettling pieces of evidence that the world economy is coming out of its extended downturn, carbon emissions were up again in 2010–setting a new record for the most emissions ever in history. We spewed 30.6 gigatons of carbon, an increase of 5% over the previous record set in 2008. And there is currently no way–economically or environmentally–to induce economic growth without spewing even more emissions. For evidence, look no further than the economically tough year of 2009, when global carbon emissions decreased.

And that presents a dilemma: We can lift people out of economic misery or save the planet from human pollution, but not both. As a result, you can expect to hear more about “decoupling” in the months ahead. The idea is that we have to create economic growth without emissions. But how?

Forty percent of the record emissions in 2010 came from the 34 developed countries in the OECD, where each person emitted 10 tons, pretty much the same as we have for the 20 years. But the developing
world–China, India, and others–provided 75%
of the growth of carbon emissions from 2009 to 2010. 

The average Chinese person emitted just 5.8 tons of carbon. But as the money begins to flow again–assuming China can get its inflation under control–there will be a lot of consumers there who want their first car and house and TV. Do Chinese (or Indians, or Indonesians) deserve less growth than us, just because they’re late to the party? No. 


If consumer demand isn’t going to slow, then how about improving the manufacturing process to be less dirty? There isn’t that much decoupling you can do without alternative power sources, and unfortunately the IEA says that 80% of the global emissions from power plants are
locked in through 2020. Those plants are already built, and
they’re going to keep making power. While China is pouring money into clean energy sources, they’re also still building coal plants at a rapid pace.

It appears to be impossible for a good economy and a cool planet to exist side by side. Especially as the economic recovery hits the developing world and they get to live the lifestyle we’ve lived without consequence for so long.

Top photo: Musicna; First graph, Earth Policy Institute. Second graph, EPA.


About the author

Morgan is a senior editor at Fast Company. He edits the Impact section, formerly Have an idea for a story? You can reach him at mclendaniel [at]