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Global Carbon Pollution Reaches Highest Levels Yet, New Report Shows

The Global Carbon Project and the University of East Anglia brought unwanted news this week: 2017 saw the highest levels of carbon pollution on record. Global carbon dioxide emissions from human activities and fossil fuels specifically will reach record highs by the end of this year.

Over the past three years, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry remarkably saw little-to-no growth; however, analysts cautioned it was too early to tell if the trends would stick. Indeed, they didn’t, at least for 2017. And while renewable energy production has increased quickly (14 percent per year over the last five years), progress is being compromised by a surge in fossil fuel consumption in some parts of the world.

Changing Patterns for the World’s Top Emitters

The new Global Carbon Project’s numbers find that overall global emissions from fossil fuels and industry are expected to grow by 2 percent. This is a function of both countries not curbing their reduction in fossil fuel consumption quickly enough, as well as some countries resuming growth in fossil fuel consumption.

While U.S. and European carbon dioxide emissions are expected to decline very slightly (0.2 percent and 0.4 percent, respectively), European emissions are declining less than they had in the past decade, and the United States is expected to see an increase in coal use this year, reversing decreases since 2013. Analysts have noted that the EU is not on track to meet its 2030 climate change commitment given its current policies, and its commitments fall short of the necessary decarbonization pathway for it to meet its 2050 targets. Germany, seen as a longtime leader on climate change, is still getting 40 percent of its energy from coal. And while cities, states and businesses have committed to taking climate action in the United States, federal leadership is non-existent, with the Trump administration rolling back climate policies and announcing its intent to pull the country out of the international Paris Agreement on climate change. The United States is in fact headed in the completely wrong direction on fossil fuels – pledging to revive the coal industry and pursuing multiple strategies to expand use of fossil fuels at home and abroad.

India’s emissions are projected to grow by 2 percent this year. However, this is quite an improvement over the past decade, when they grew more than 6 percent per year. Thanks to booming renewable energy in the country, International Energy Agency estimates India’s renewable energy capacity will more than double by 2022, overtaking renewable expansion in the European Union for the first time.

The study points to China’s projected emissions growth rate of 3.5 percent—following two years of decline—as the single-most important reason for the resumed global emissions growth. The increase is mainly fueled by a 3 percent surge of coal consumption. Coal is still the primary fuel source in China, and four industries—electricity, steel, cement and chemicals—make up more than 80 percent of the country’s coal use. In the first three quarters of 2017, cement production stayed flat, while electricity and cruel steel production jumped 6.9 percent and 6.3 percent, respectively, and the chemical manufacturing industry grew 3.8 percent.  The report also notes that China was not able to maintain high levels of hydropower generation due to lower rainfall levels.

The Silver Lining

The silver lining is that China’s coal use in 2017 is unlikely to reach its record high in 2013 (it’s dropped by 8 percent since then despite the recent increase) and its renewable energy deployment is growing. By July this year, China’s solar PV capacity topped 112 gigawatts (GW), exceeding the country’s 2020 goal. The government responded by setting new, ambitious annual installation targets and putting the projection to 213GW in 2020, 5 times larger than the current renewable energy capacity of the United States. In the first three quarters of this year, two-thirds of all new installed capacity came from renewable energy sources, while investment in coal plants dropped 30 percent. Wind and solar curtailment has also decreased. This translates to non-fossil energy comprising a 14.3 percent share of overall energy consumption, up from 13.3 percent just nine months ago and nearing the country’s international commitment to reach 15 percent by 2020.

With its emissions on the rise again, now is a good time for China to take even bolder action to reform the economy and revolutionize its energy sector. Past performance proves that there is no insurmountable barrier for the country to curb its emissions growth, should China’s leaders stick to their commitment to ecological progress, which was repeatedly noted in President Xi’s report on the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party.  Indeed, the Climate Action Tracker just released a study that showed that China is now positioned to overachieve its Paris Agreement contribution. The research group accordingly lowered their estimate of China’s future emissions in 2030 by 0.7 GtCO2e and noted another 0.7 GtCO2e reduction is likely if the country strengthens its coal abatement efforts.

Time to Ramp Up Action

Whether 2017 emissions are a temporary uptick or an unwelcome upward trend remains to be seen. Longer term trends, rather than a year’s worth of data, will determine our ability to decarbonize in time to meet the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals. WRI’s recent research shows that while 49 countries have peaked their emissions, it is still insufficient to limit warming to 1.5-2 degrees C (2.7-3.6 degrees F) and prevent the worst effects of climate change. Research suggests that to have a likely chance of cost-effectively meeting the 2°C limit, global emissions need to peak by 2020 at the latest. Currently, even if countries achieve their climate commitments under the Paris Agreement, global emissions are not expected to peak until after 2030.

Per the Paris Agreement, countries should update their national climate plans by 2020. If we are to see different headlines from the Global Carbon Project in the coming years and avoid the most dangerous climate impacts, countries have to peak their emissions as soon as possible, and keep emissions levels moving steadily downward.

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