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Research scientists in Italy seem to have been particularly busy last week, publishing at least three significant reports, writes Stephen Gardner. The first was about an apparent finding that needs to be proved and may or may not have major ramifications. The other two were observations of phenomena in the real world that will affect everyone. However, only the first garnered any media attention.

The first was the finding of the Opera project, at Gran Sasso near L’Aquila, that Einstein might have got it wrong. The discovery that tiny particles could apparently travel faster than the speed of light earned headlines worldwide, followed by a faster-than-the-speed-of-light debunking (see for example the Wall Street Journal). In fact the scientists who published the finding urged caution and asked others to test their work. So we shall see.

The second report was published by the European Commission Joint Research Centre’s Institute for Environment and Sustainability in Ispra, northern Italy. The institute’s data shows that world greenhouse gas emissions from manmade sources reached an all-time high of 33 billion tonnes in 2010.

There are several sobering aspects to this data. First, it shows that the Kyoto Protocol has not worked. Annex I countries (those with emission reduction targets) are likely in fact to collectively meet their target but only because of two historical accidents: the collapse of Soviet-bloc heavy industry, and the continuing financial and economic crisis, which led to major industrial production drops. Had these interruptions not happened, developed world emissions would be much higher.

The report also shows that any Kyoto Protocol related achievements have been rendered largely irrelevant by growth in emissions in non-Annex I countries, especially China. Chinese emissions have doubled since 2003, and in absolute terms are now well in excess of even US emissions. Chinese per capita emissions now exceed those of France and Spain (France is a low-carbon country due to nuclear power), and are on the same level as Italy. Alarmingly, the Chinese could be emitting on a per capita basis at the same high level as Americans by 2017 if current trends continue.

The enormous Chinese emissions growth is largely a consequence of installation of fossil fuel based energy generation, mainly from coal. Depending on who’s figures you look at (Chinese official statistics are treated with caution), in one year alone, between 2009-2010, Chinese coal consumption increased by between 5.9 and 10.1 percent. The building of dozens of coal-fired power plants in China locks in emissions for the next few decades and makes it unrealistic that global emissions will peak in 2015, as recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This is especially the case because emissions in developed countries are not dramatically declining to compensate for the developing country increases.

The third – largely ignored – finding from Italy last week came from the Italian Glaciological Committee. It found that Italian glaciers have lost 37 percent of their volume in the last quarter of a century, with a speeding-up of the shrinkage since 2003. Italy’s glaciers could be gone completely by 2050, and the process is now likely to be irreversible, the scientists said.

This is a real-world illustration of the pace of global warming, the consequences of which are unpredictable, but which will involve loss of ice cover, rising sea levels, and chaotic weather patterns. The number of weather-related natural disasters is already increasing sharply, affecting more people (see CRED EM-DAT), and becoming more expensive, as the insurance industry well knows.

Unfortunately policy makers are ill-equipped to address the problem, even though they’ve been told enough times what the problem is. The inertia might be down to denial, the cumbersome structure of decision making, short-term thinking or inability to communicate the risks, but the result is the same: too little action, too late. But perhaps the scientists at Gran Sasso will really prove Einstein wrong, and we can send José Manuel Barroso back in time to sort it all out.

A version of this article appeared on EUObserver blogs.

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