Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels are surging again after staying flat for three years, climate scientists reported on Monday, a sign that efforts to rein in planet-warming gases still have a long way to go
Emissions from fossil fuels and industrial uses are projected to grow 2 percent this year, reaching 41 billion tons by the end of 2017, according to the report presented at the United Nations’ climate summit in Bonn, Germany. The increase was predicted to continue in 2018.
Total greenhouse gas emissions remained level, at about 36 billion tons per year from 2014 to 2016, even as the global economy grew, which suggested carbon dioxide emissions had crested with the rise of renewable electricity sources and improved fuel efficiency standards. But emissions from fossil fuels will hit 37 billion tons this year, a report from the Global Carbon Project finds. The report draws from three papers in the journals Nature Climate Change, Environmental Research Letters and Earth System Science Data Discussions.
“This is very disappointing,” Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, said in a statement. “We need to reach a peak in global emissions in the next few years and drive emissions down rapidly afterwards to address climate change and limit its impacts.”
The uptick comes as climate change is becoming more tangible. Vicious hurricanes ravaged the Atlantic this summer, killing hundreds and leaving billions of dollars of destruction in places such as the Barbuda, Puerto Rico and Houston. In August, flooding and mudslides killed thousands in disasters from the South Asian nations of India, Nepal and Bangladesh to Sierra Leone in West Africa. The grueling six-year civil war in Syria, which began shortly after its worst drought in 900 years, is now considered the world’s first major “climate war.”
The increase is particularly alarming because carbon dioxide emitted today has effects decades later, meaning that even if countries completely halted emissions, the world would continue to warm for years to come. And CO2 isn’t the only type of greenhouse gas polluting the atmosphere. Methane traps roughly 30 times more heat than carbon dioxide, and the gas comes from agriculture, coal and gas production, and landfills. Nitrous oxide, known as laughing gas, traps about 300 times more heat than carbon dioxide; it’s emitted by soil fertilizers and chemical production. Both are on the rise.
“This year we have seen how climate change can amplify the impacts of hurricanes with stronger downpours of rain, higher sea levels and warmer ocean conditions favoring more powerful storms,” Le Quéré said. “This is a window into the future.”
The bulk of increase came from China, where emissions are projected to grow by 3.5 percent, driven by a rise in coal consumption. China won praise earlier this year for setting aside $360 billion for renewable energy investment over the next four years and canceling 103 new coal-fired power plants. The moves were widely contrasted with President Donald Trump’s retreat from the Paris climate agreement and purging his administration’s ranks of climate scientists and their work.
But China’s coal consumption grew by 3 percent, while use of oil and gas continued to rise.
U.S. emissions are expected to decline by 0.4 percent. That’s largely due to the widespread conversion of power plants to natural gas, which emits less carbon dioxide, but is still responsible for an uptick in heat-trapping methane. But U.S. coal consumption increased in 2017 for the first time in five years because of higher natural gas prices ― a trend Trump promised to encourage with policies favorable to coal companies.
Still, technologies such as wind and solar power expanded by about 14 percent per year, the report found. Robert Jackson, a co-author of the report, said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that trend will continue despite the Trump administration’s rollback of regulations aimed at discouraging fossil fuel use.
“The federal government can slow the development of renewables and low-carbon technologies, but it can’t stop it,” Jackson, a professor of Earth systems science at Stanford University, said in a press release. “That transition is being driven by the low cost of new renewable infrastructure, and it’s being driven by new consumer preferences.”
Indeed, the Senate GOP preserved incentives for renewable energy in its version of a tax bill after House Republicans axed tax credits and subsidies for wind, solar and electric vehicles. There are promising signs coming from states, too. After Democrats triumphed in state elections last week, New Jersey and Virginia are on track to adopt policies that would cap the total amount of carbon dioxide that polluters are allowed to emit in the states.
But only a few countries seem to be adhering to the goals set out in the non-binding Paris Agreement, which aims to keep the planet from warming beyond 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. After that point, scientists warn that sea level rise, violent storms, and intense droughts and heatwaves associated with climate change will make adaptation extremely difficult and costly in most densely populated regions. CO2 emissions declined in 22 countries where the economies continued to grow. That includes the U.S., where the reduction came primarily from natural gas made cheaper than coal by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, rather than efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But in other places, economic interventions had some impact. In India ― where, like in China, the metropoles are so choked by smog that breathing the air in New Delhi equates to smoking nearly 50 cigarettes in a day ― emissions are forecast to increase by just 2 percent, after rising more than 6 percent during the last decade.
Still, India was among the 101 countries where carbon pollution increased as the economy grew, representing 50 percent global emissions.
“This year’s carbon budget news is a step back for humankind,” said Amy Luers, executive director of the sustainability nonprofit Future Earth. “We must reverse this trend and start to accelerate toward a safe and prosperous world for all.”