In the space of two days, the International Energy Agency and the Global Carbon Project announced that not only will carbon emissions from advanced economies increase this year for the first time in five years, but that global carbon emissions are set to hit an all-time high, growing by more than 2%.
On Tuesday, the International Energy Agency (IEA) revealed that, based on the latest available energy data, energy-related CO2 emissions in North America, the European Union, and other advanced economies in the Asia Pacific region, grew for the first time in five years, as higher oil and gas use more than offset the declining use of coal consumption.
Specifically, the IEA expects CO2 emissions in these economies to increase by around 0.5% in 2018. The IEA also expects emerging economies to emit more CO2 in 2018 than in 2017.
“Our data shows that despite the strong growth in solar PV and wind, emissions have started to rise again in advanced economies, highlighting the need for deploying all technologies and energy efficiency,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director. “This turnaround should be another warning to governments as they meet in Katowice this week. Increasing efforts are needed to encourage even more renewables, greater energy efficiency, more nuclear, and more innovation for technologies such as carbon capture, utilisation and storage and hydrogen, for instance.”
Increases in the sub-1% range might have been manageable — if in no way acceptable — but a day later, the latest report from the Global Carbon Project — which was authored by scientists from all around the globe — confirmed that not only would global carbon emissions increase in 2018, but that they would hit an all-time high and grow by over 2%. This is the second year in a row that global fossil fuel emissions are set to rise, due primarily to growing energy use, and the group of scientists estimates emissions will reach a record high of just over 37 billion tonnes in 2018, a 2.7% increase over emissions output in 2017, which itself saw a 1.6% increase.
“We thought, perhaps hoped, emissions had peaked a few years ago,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, and co-author of the report. “After two years of renewed growth, that was wishful thinking.”
“Global energy demand is outpacing powerful growth in renewables and energy efficiency,” Jackson continued. “The clock is ticking in our struggle to keep warming below 2 degrees.”
Unsurprisingly, the 10 biggest emitters in 2018 are China, the United States, India, Russia, Japan, Germany, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Canada — although, if you rank the European Union as a whole region, it would rank third.
“We are seeing a strong growth of global CO2 emissions once again,” added Lead researcher Prof Corinne Le Quéré, Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and Professor of Climate Change Science and Policy at the University of East Anglia. “Emissions need to peak and rapidly decrease to address climate change. With this year’s growth in emissions, it looks like the peak is not yet in sight.
“To limit global warming to the Paris Agreement goal of 1.5°C, CO2 emissions would need to decline by 50 per cent by 2030 and reach net zero by around 2050. We are a long way from this and much more needs to be done because if countries stick to the commitments they have already made, we are on track to see 3°C of global warming.”
US Leading the Way?
While the United States is well-known for publicly proclaiming its global leadership — regardless of the truth of the matter — the numbers reveal that the US can quite comfortably lay hold to the claim of leadership in terms of carbon emissions, but realistically, that is not necessarily the title the country may have been hoping for.
According to the Global Carbon Project’s data, emissions of carbon dioxide in the United States are projected to increase 2.5% in 2018 after a decade of declines and will account for 15% of the global total. This is, at least in part, due to unusual weather, but also a growing appetite for oil, which is expected to see an increase in usage of 1.4% this year compared to 2017 (while natural gas usage will grow by around 7.6%). And, as can be seen below, the United States produces far more CO2 per person compared to the rest of the world.
“We’re driving more miles in bigger cars, changes that are outpacing improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency,” Stanford’s Rob Jackson explained.
The single silver lining out of the United States’ figures is the fact that coal consumption continues to decline, and in fact, across both Canada and the United States, coal consumption has dropped by 40% since 2005, and the United States is expected to take a record 1.5 gigawatts (GW) worth of coal-fired capacity offline this year, helping to reduce its coal emissions by around 2.1%.
“Market forces and the drive for cleaner air are pushing countries toward natural gas, wind and solar power,” Jackson said. “This change will not only reduce CO2emissions but will also save lives lost to air pollution.”
While there are multiple individual culprits — both national and energy source — one overall trend revealed by both the IEA and the Global Carbon Project is the global increase in energy demand. “It’s the first time in a decade that the economies of essentially all countries are growing,” said Rob Jackson. Economic growth across the global board has increased demand for iron, steel, aluminum, and cement manufactured in China which, in turn, has resulted in a substantial uptick in both energy consumption and emissions in China. According to the authors of the report, “After four years of stable emissions amid pressure to improve air quality, the country has now hit the accelerator.”
Specifically, China’s emissions will account for 27% of the global total, having grown around 4.7% in 2018 and reaching its own all-time high.
European Union emissions are set to account for 10% of global emissions, benefiting from a small decline of around 0.7% — but this is still well below the 2% declines per year seen in the decade leading up to 2014. India’s emissions will account for around 7% of the global total, having grown by around 6.3%, while emissions for the rest of the world will account for 42% of the total and are expected to grow by around 1.8%.
“The growing global demand for energy is outpacing decarbonisation for now,” explained Professor Le Quéré. “This needs to change, and change quickly to address climate change. We need strong policy and economic support for rapid deployment of low carbon technologies to cut emissions across the energy and transport sectors, from buildings and from industry.
“Energy trends are changing rapidly, with coal use decreasing in many parts of the world and still below its 2013 level globally, and an explosion in wind and solar energy. But while renewables are rising fast, it is not yet enough to reverse global emissions trends.”
The dual confirmation that carbon emissions will increase in 2018 has been met with harsh global criticism and disappointment.
“Scientists are increasingly aware that every half a degree of warming matters,” said Chris Weber, WWF’s global climate and energy lead scientist, referring to the IEA’s figures. “We need to halve greenhouse gas emissions globally by 2030 to keep the Paris Agreement’s targets in our sights. Any increase in emissions is a step in the wrong direction. All countries must urgently cut their emissions to stave off the worst impacts of climate change and advanced economies must lead the way given their historic responsibility for emissions.”
“It is clear that despite the continued strong deflationary gains and technology improvements in renewable energy, there is insufficient global consensus and a whole-of-economy global action to deal with climate change, consistent with Paris, despite the rise in frequency and severity of extreme weather events,” added Tim Buckley, Director of Energy Finance Studies at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA). “We are unlikely to see Poland lead a global consensus for action at COP24 this month, but I am quietly hopeful that possibly under Japan’s leadership of the G20 in 2019 might prove pivotal and the catalyst for accelerated action.”
In response to the report from the Global Carbon Project, Christiana Figueres, convenor of Mission 2020 and vice-chair of the Global Covenant of Mayors, and former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), helped to pen a Nature Commentary response alongside several scientists and which was co-signed by more than 100 leading experts from political, civil, and business sectors.
“Global CO2 emissions must start to fall from 2020 if we are to meet the temperature goals of the Paris agreement, but this is within our grasp. We have already achieved things that seemed unimaginable just a decade ago,” Christiana Figueres explained. “Exponential progress in key solutions is happening and on track to displace fossil fuels: renewable energy technology costs have dropped by 80% in a decade, and today, over half of all new energy generation capacity is renewable.
“Before 2015 many people thought the Paris Agreement was impossible, yet thousands of people and institutions made the shift from impossible to unstoppable. The same is true of decarbonizing the economy. Propelled by the pursuit of clean air, jobs and energy independence among other benefits, the intrepid, collective efforts of young people, civil society, businesses, investors, cities and states are charting the course to net zero emissions by 2050.”