A new report from the University of Michigan starts off its press release with a not so optimistic phrase: “It’s a message no one wants to hear.” Just what message is this? That it would take an extreme economic downturn to slow the effects of global warming.

The research conducted by José Tapia Granados and Edward Ionides of U-M and Óscar Carpintero of the University of Valladolid in Spain is considered the first to assess fluctuations in carbon dioxide based on measurable levels, instead of less accurate carbon emission estimates.

“If ‘business as usual’ conditions continue, economic contractions the size of the Great Recession or even bigger will be needed to reduce atmospheric levels of CO₂,” Tapia Granados, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research, said in a statement (via Science Daily).

Report Suggests Enormous Economic Changes Needed to Slow Global WarmingAtmospheric CO2 (monthly average) as measured in air samples collected at Mauna Loa, Hawaii (Keeling curve) from Feburary 1958 to Februrary 2012. Units are parts per million by volume. Estimated preindustrial concentrations, at levels between 200 and 300 ppm, would be far out of the graph. (Image and caption: U of M/ Tapia Granados et al)

The research, published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Policy, evaluated natural phenomena — volcanic eruptions and the El Niño Southern oscillation, which the release states are believed to impact CO2 levels — the world’s population, and the world economy based on worldwide GDP and their correlation with changes in atmospheric CO2 levels.

Here’s what they found:

Tapia Granados and colleagues found no observable relation between short-term growth of world population and CO₂ concentrations, and they show that recent incidents of volcanic activity coincided with global recessions, which brings into question the reductions in atmospheric CO₂ previously ascribed to these volcanic eruptions.


In years of above-trend world GDP, from 1958 to 2010, the researchers found greater increases in CO₂ concentrations. For each trillion in U.S. dollars that the world GDP deviates from trend, CO₂ levels deviate from trend about half a part per million, they found. Concentrations of CO₂ were estimated to be 200-300 ppm during preindustrial times. They are presently close to 400 ppm, and levels around 300 ppm are considered safe to keep a stable climate.

Report Suggests Enormous Economic Changes Needed to Slow Global WarmingAnnual growth of the world economic output (green line, trillions of 2000 US dollars) and annual change of estimated CO2 emissions (millions of Kt, black dots). Data on CO2 emisions for 2009 and 2010 were computed from preliminary estimates of carbon emissions obtained from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) of the US Department of Energy on March 2012. All other data from the World Bank (that takes estimates of CO2 emissions from the CDIC). (Image and caption: U of M/Tapia Granados et al)

Detroit’s CBS affiliate explains further, that since El Niño cannot be controlled by man, the “sole modifiable factor” is economic activity.

What is suggested to “break economic habits” that are contributing to the rise in this greenhouse gas and subsequent global warming according to the researchers are “enormous” economic changes. In addition, CBS reports Tapia Granados saying “[…] climate change will soon have a serious impact on the world, and the time is growing short to take corrective action.”

“One solution that has promise is a carbon tax levied on any activity producing CO₂ in order to create incentives to reduce emissions,” Tapia Granados said. “The money would be returned to the population on a per capita basis so the tax would not mean any extra fiscal burden.”