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Smoke billows from a coal-fired power plant in Changchun, in northeast China's Jilin province, in 2010. That year, China's CO2 emissions grew 212 million tonnes or 10.4 per cent in 2010. (Associated Press)

Global carbon dioxide emissions hit a record 9.1 billion tonnes in 2010, after a year of the highest growth ever, a new study has found.

"This is the highest total annual growth recorded, and the highest annual growth rate since 2003," reported an analysis by the Global Carbon Project published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change. The project is an international science research partnership founded in 2001 to develop a complete picture of the global carbon cycle.

Emissions of greenhouses gases, measured in units equivalent to tonnes of carbon dioxide, have been linked to global climate change.

The new study was released as world leaders meet in Durban, South Africa, in an effort to reach a new international agreement to reduce emissions and tackle climate change following the end of the commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, and the failure to reach a new binding agreement in Copenhagen in 2009.

Governments are aiming to keep the increase in global temperatures by 2100 below two degrees. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that may allow the world to avoid some of the most dangerous aspects of climate change, such as a significant rise in sea level and extreme weather.

However, the new analysis shows global emissions since 2000 are on track to "far exceed two degrees warming by 2100," said study co-author Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, in a statement.

Preliminary estimates showed the 2010 emissions increase was driven by a 5.9 per cent jump in fossil fuel emissions after the world economy rebounded from the 2008-09 financial crisis, said the study led by Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway. That "more than offset" the 1.4 per cent drop in emissions in 2009 as a result of the crisis.

For the past two years, the study said, the growth in emissions has been dominated by developing countries, the study found, especially China, where emissions grew by 212 million tonnes or 10.4 per cent, and India, where emissions grew 49 million tonnes or 9.4 per cent last year.

Average emissions drop developed countries

In 2010, CO2 emissions in developed countries grew 3.4 per cent. But after decreases in the two previous years, they are now lower than the average emissions during 2000 to 2007.

The study suggested that the global financial crisis helped developed countries meet their emissions commitments under the Kyoto Protocol and Copenhagen Accord, but had little impact on emissions growth in the developing world.

"Reversing the growth in global fossil-fuel and industrial CO2 emissions will require countering the trends in all of the underlying contributors," the paper said.

Overall, global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels have increased 49 per cent in the past two decades, the study said.

While previous economic crises since the 1960s had persistent effects on energy production and consumption, that was not the case for the 2008-09 crisis. The study suggested that was due to a fast drop in energy prices, large government investments to stimulate the economy, and high economic growth in the developing world.

Although the global financial crisis "was an opportunity to reverse some of the trends leading to increased CO2 emissions, the return to high emissions growth in 2010 may make the global financial crisis a lost opportunity," the paper said.