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4 Things You Need to Know About Current Trends in Carbon Dioxide Emissions

While negotiators huddle at COP21 in Paris, the Global Carbon Project just released its latest assessment of carbon dioxide emissions trends through 2014, showing where emissions are now and where they are headed.

Here are four of the report’s key findings:

1. Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and cement reached the highest point in human history

Just at the precise time emissions reductions are needed most, carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels and producing cement have reached their highest level in human history. Emissions from fossil fuel and cement grew to 35.9 gigatons of carbon dioxide this year. This is 60 percent above 1990 emissions. Burning coal made up about 42 percent of these emissions, with oil at 33 percent, gas 19 percent and cement 6 percent.

The global emissions profile has been changing. In 1990, 66 percent of global emissions came from developed countries; in 2013, that figure had dropped to 38 percent. China contributed 27 percent of 2014 emissions, the U.S. 15 percent, the European Union 10 percent and India 7 percent. Between 2013 and 2014, emissions grew by 1.2 percent in China, 2.9 percent in the U.S., 8.6 percent in India and declined by 5.9 percent in the EU.

However, per capita emissions tell a very different story. On average, they were 1.3 tons of carbon per capita per year globally. In the United States, they were 4.7 tons of carbon per person per year; in China, 1.9 tons; EU 1.8 tons; India 0.5 ton.

2. However, emissions leveled off in 2014

While emissions have continued to increase over the years, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and cement increased only 0.6 percent in 2014, suggesting a slowing of emissions growth. At the same time, GDP grew 3.3 percent, demonstrating a decoupling of economic growth and emissions.

Scientists associated with the study suggest that the flattening of emissions is due to China’s decreased coal use.

3. Emissions are projected to decline in 2015

Most notably, emissions are projected to decline by 0.6 percent in 2015. While the percentage is nowhere near where it needs to be, this flattening of emissions, if it occurs and is sustained, could be significant. For the least costly path toward a likely chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), global emissions need to peak by 2020.

4. If low- or no-emissions growth continues and countries implement their climate action plans, some of the most carbon-intensive emissions scenarios could be avoided. But we need to aim higher.

Global atmospheric concentrations are the highest in at least the last 800,000 years, and current trajectories of fossil fuel emissions are tracking some of most carbon-intensive IPCC scenarios. However, if the current slowdown in emissions growth continues, coupled with countries’ climate action plans -- known as INDCs -- for the post-2020 period, some of the worst effects of climate change could be avoided. Yet the GCP notes that emissions trajectories are still far from the 2 degrees C scenario and warming of 3 degrees C is possible or even likely without greater emissions reductions.

The science tells us where we are. COP 21 offers the opportunity to go further. The Global Carbon Project’s report sends a clear signal for increased ambition before and after 2030. The agreement can do so by sending short-term policy signals through the creation of regular five-year cycles of commitments with increased ambition and a long-term goal that clearly guides such commitments to phase out emissions in the long term. The countries of the world must seize the opportunity in Paris to forge an agreement that closes the emissions gap.

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