2017 saw a growth in emissions of two per cent from 2016 levels, and indications are this trend will continue. According to the reports, ‘economic projections suggest further emissions growth in 2018 is likely. Time is running out on our ability to keep global average temperature increases below 2°C.’
Carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere have increased from approximately 277 parts per million at the begininng of the industrial era to 403 parts per million in 2016. This increase was largely down to deforestation and land-use change until about 1920, then the mass burning of fossil fuels became the dominant source of carbon emissions.
Emissions from fossil fuels and industry make up about 90 per cent of all CO2 emissions from human activities. For the last three years, these emissions were stable, despite continuing growth in the global economy. This is unusual as the two are normally inextricable linked, making the years between 2014 and 2016 stand out as emissions barely budged.
The Global Carbon Project reports explain how many positive trends contributed to this ‘unique hiatus’, including reduced coal use in China and elsewhere, continuing gains in energy efficiency, and a boom in renewable energy such as wind and solar.
However, this temporary hiatus appears now to be the exception that proves the rule, as 2017’s data shows a return to increasing CO2 levels, and a return to more coal burning in China.
Despite a recent policy shift towards greener thinking, the reports site China as leading the increase, where emissions are projected to grow by approximately 3.5 per cent in 2017. Coal use is up an estimated three per cent, oil use is up five per cent and natural gas use is up nearly 12 per cent.
‘Mostly it is the renewed growth in emissions in China, boosted by economic interventions from the Chinese government,’ says Corinne Le Quere, a professor of climate change science and policy at the University of East Anglia and director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. But, she also suggests it’s not entirely down to China. ‘The decreases in emissions in the US and EU are also expected to be weaker this year compared to the past ten years,’ she says.
- Graph from Environmental Research Letters shows CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use and industry since 1960, for China, the United States, the European Union, India, and the rest of the world (ROW), with open symbols representing projections for 2017
Reasons for optimism
The Global Carbon Project, the group that produced the worrying reports, was started to assist the international science community in establishing a ‘mutually agreed knowledge base’, supporting policy debate and action in slowing the rate of greenhouse gases.
Professor Rob Jackson, who chairs the research group, believes despite these new findings there is still reason for optimism. ‘This year’s result is discouraging, but I remain hopeful,’ he said. Jackson is also the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. ‘Prices for wind and solar power are plummeting, and batteries and storage are helping to balance supply and demand for electricity. The world’s energy future is changing before our eyes.’
One positive sign that lends weight to this optimism is the number of countries where emissions are steadily declining. Over the past decade, 22 countries have seen GDP growth alongside falling CO2 emissions: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and United States.
“Prices for wind and solar power are plummeting, and batteries and storage are helping to balance supply and demand for electricity. The world’s energy future is changing before our eyes”
Professor Le Quere suggests the way forward for CO2 reduction might involve new technology: ‘There is a big opportunity and uncertainty associated with the imminent revolution in transport. This is both how electric vehicles will penetrate the markets and how transport itself may transform from a vehicle ownership to a service, with driverless-vehicles offering a range of new opportunities. At the moment it is very unclear if those changes will increase or decrease the emissions. There is a tremendous opportunity for emissions reductions if managed properly.’
However, as things stand, the road to reducing CO2 emissions is sure to be a long one. As Le Quere point out, ‘the decline in coal use needs to continue globally, and that hinges on policies in China and the US mainly. The decarbonisation efforts also need to start tackling oil and gas, both of which have grown unabated in the past decade and more.’
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