Greenhouse gas emissions for 2009 actually collapsed, as the world was in the midst of a global recession. Recessions tend to depress economic productivity – by their very definition – and reduce demand for electricity generation (a primary source of carbon emissions in the US and China).   That results in less greenhouse gas emissions, in terms of burning carbon fuels, transport of goods and factory production. But that brief reprieve on emissions has ended, according to the latest studies:

Global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning jumped by the largest amount on record last year, upending the notion that the brief decline during the recession might persist through the recovery.

Emissions rose 5.9 percent in 2010, according to an analysis released Sunday by the Global Carbon Project, an international collaboration of scientists tracking the numbers. Scientists with the group said the increase, a half-billion extra tons of carbon pumped into the air, was almost certainly the largest absolute jump in any year since the Industrial Revolution, and the largest percentage increase since 2003.

The increase solidified a trend of ever-rising emissions that scientists fear will make it difficult, if not impossible, to forestall severe climate change in coming decades.

I think we’re probably beyond the point of return, and will have to move to harm minimization strategies. The Durban, South Africa conference on climate change should resign themselves to this. And this is not necessarily being driven by the US, where emissions did increase by 4% last year, but by China, where they shot up 10.4%.

To that end, the Chinese made the surprising announcement at Durban, albeit one that looks too late to make much of a difference, that they would be interested in a binding carbon limitation in 2020.

In separate remarks to reporters and non-governmental groups, two of China’s top climate officials suggested they might participate in talks aimed at forging a new, enforceable global warming agreement by 2020. That issue, along with the question of whether industrialized countries will agree to a new set of emissions reductions under an existing 1997 climate treaty, are key stumbling blocks in the ongoing climate talks in the coastal city of Durban.

But it remains unclear how much China — which now ranks as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases linked to climate change — would commit to as part of a future international treaty.

“We do not rule out the possibility of [a] legally binding” agreement, China’s lead climate negotiator, Su Wei, said in a news conference Saturday. “It is possible for us, but it depends on the negotiations.”

This is obviously pretty hedged, a point made by US climate negotiator Todd Stern. It should be added, however, that China has the type of command and control government that could put such carbon limitations into action, while in this country any binding agreement out of Durban will probably meet the same fate as Kyoto. This is not to say that China has a superior form of government, just that we need to incorporate mitigation strategies into our thoughts about the climate, because we’re not likely to reduce carbon emissions rapidly enough or at the proper levels to avoid a climate crisis.