Global emissions of carbon dioxide have reached the highest levels on record, scientists projected last week, in the latest evidence of the chasm between international goals for combating climate change and what countries are doing.
Between 2014 and 2016, emissions remained largely flat, leading to hopes that the world was beginning to turn a corner. Those hopes have been dashed. In 2017, global emissions grew 1.6 percent. The rise in 2018 is projected to be 2.7 percent.
The expected increase, which would bring fossil fuel and industrial emissions to a record high of 37.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, is being driven by nearly 5 percent emissions growth in China and more than 6 percent in India, researchers estimated, along with growth in many other nations throughout the world. Emissions by the United States grew 2.5 percent, while emissions by the European Union declined by just under 1 percent.
As nations are gathered for climate talks in Poland, this stark message is unambiguous: When it comes to promises to begin cutting the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change, the world remains well off target.
“We are in trouble. We are in deep trouble with climate change,” United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said this week at the opening of the 24th annual U.N. climate conference, where countries will wrestle with the ambitious goals they need to meet to sharply reduce carbon emissions in coming years.
“It is hard to overstate the urgency of our situation,” he added. “Even as we witness devastating climate impacts causing havoc across the world, we are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption.”
In October, a top U.N.-backed scientific panel found that nations have barely a decade to take “unprecedented” actions and cut their emissions in half by 2030 to prevent the worst consequences of climate change. The panel’s report found “no documented historic precedent” for the rapid changes to the infrastructure of society that would be needed to hold warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.
The day after Thanksgiving, the Trump administration released a nearly 1,700-page report co-written by hundreds of scientists finding that climate change is already causing increasing damage to the United States. That was soon followed by another report detailing the growing gap between the commitments made at earlier U.N. conferences and what is needed to steer the planet off its calamitous path.
Coupled with Wednesday’s findings, that drumbeat of daunting news has cast a considerable pall over the international climate talks in Poland, which began this week and are scheduled to run through Dec. 14.
Negotiators there face the difficult task of coming to terms with the gap between the promises they made in Paris in 2015 and what’s needed to control dangerous levels of warming — a first step, it is hoped, toward more aggressive climate action beginning in 2020. Leaders at the conference also are trying to put in place a process for how countries measure and report their greenhouse gas emissions to the rest of the world in the years ahead.
But while most of the world remains firmly committed to the notion of tackling climate change, many countries are not on pace to meet their relatively modest Paris pledges. The Trump administration has continued to roll back environmental regulations and to insist that it will exit the Paris agreement in 2020. Brazil, which has struggled to rein in deforestation, in the fall elected Jair Bolsonaro, who has pledged to roll back protections for the Amazon.
The continuing growth in global emissions is happening, researchers noted, even though renewable energy sources are growing. It’s just that they’re still far too small as energy sources.
“Solar and wind are doing great; they’re going quite well,” said Glen Peters, director of the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo and another of the Global Carbon Project authors. “But in China and India, the solar and wind are just filling new demand. You could say if you didn’t have solar or wind, emissions could be higher. But solar and wind are nowhere near big enough yet to replace fossil fuels.”
The biggest emissions story in 2018, though, appears to be China, the world’s single largest emitting country, which grew its output of planet-warming gases by nearly half a billion tons, researchers estimate. The country’s sudden, significant increase in carbon emissions could be linked to a wider slowdown in the economy, environmental analysts said.
“Under pressure of the current economic downturn, some local governments might have loosened supervision on air pollution and carbon emissions,” said Yang Fuqiang, an energy adviser to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S. environmental organization.
The United States is the globe’s second-largest emitter. Scientists have said that annual carbon dioxide emissions need to plunge almost by half by the year 2030 if the world wants to hit the most stringent — and safest — climate change target. That would be either keeping the Earth’s warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius — when it is already at 1 degrees — or only briefly “overshooting” that temperature. But emissions are far too high to limit warming to such an extent. And instead of falling dramatically, they’re still rising.
“India is providing electricity and energy to hundreds of millions of people who don’t have it yet,” Jackson said. “That’s very different than in China, where they are ramping up coal use again in part because their economic growth has been slowing. They’re greenlighting coal-based projects that have been on hold.”
In the United States, emissions in 2018 are projected to have risen 2.5 percent, driven in part by a very warm summer that led to high air conditioning use and a very cold winter in the Northeast, but also by a continued use of oil driven by low gas prices and bigger cars. U.S. emissions had been on a downturn, as coal plants are replaced by natural gas plants and renewable energy, but that momentum ground to a halt this year, at least temporarily. In Europe, cars also have been a major driver of slower-than-expected emissions reductions.
Despite the overwhelming challenges, Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, still holds high hopes for the talks in Poland.
“I’m an optimist because of human nature,” Espinosa said in an interview. She suspects the spate of ominous climate news might have prompted a tipping point, where societies begin demanding aggressive actions from their leaders to stave off the most disastrous effects of climate change.
“I think we have kind of reached the limit,” she said. “When we are facing the limit, I think we need to come up with something more creative, more ambitious, stronger and bolder.”
Climate change is a global phenomenon that requires global solutions. Fortunately, we already have platforms for multilateral action such as the United Nations and forums such as the G20.
World leaders are meeting at the Climate Conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, December 2-14th, to finalize the rulebook to implement the 2015 landmark Paris Agreement on climate change. In the agreement, countries committed to take action to limit global warming to well under 2°C this century. At the conference in Poland, the UN will invite people to voice their views and launch a campaign to encourage every day climate action.
Meanwhile, thanks to the media and to rapid communications, people are increasingly aware of what is happening in other parts of the world. They see how migration, trade and technology are making us more interdependent than ever before.
Although we do see a backlash against global integration in some parts of the world today, I am convinced that the sense of international solidarity will only grow in the years to come. An increasing awareness that we have a shared destiny on this fragile planet will help to strengthen inclusive multilateral action in the years to come.