December 6, 2018, by Tim Radford
Record carbon emissions are set to mark 2018. And although investment in renewable energy is rising, the world is still warming dangerously fast.
LONDON, 6 December, 2018 – For the second year running, the world will have a doubtful achievement to claim by 31 December: record carbon emissions.
Even before the close of 2018, scientists behind the biggest accounting effort on the planet, the Global Carbon Budget, warn that emissions from coal, oil and gas will have dumped a record 37 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (a way of comparing the emissions from various greenhouse gases based on their global warming potential) into the atmosphere by the end of this month.
This is 2.7% more than last year, which also showed an increase. Human destruction of the world’s forests will add another four billion tonnes in the same 12 months.
The news comes as 190 nations negotiate in Katowice in Poland to work out how to meet the targets they set in 2015 in Paris, to contain global warming to no more than 2°C by 2100, and if possible no more than 1.5°C.
Little time left
But in a commentary in Nature a second set of scientists warns that time is running out. At the present rate of fossil fuel use, the world is set to breach the 1.5°C target by 2030, rather than the 2040 everybody had assumed.
That is because rising emissions, declining air pollution and natural climate cycles working together will make climate change more fast and furious than expected.
There are hopeful signs: renewable energy investment has begun to accelerate, and some nations have started to reduce fossil fuel emissions.
But the confirmation of yet another record year for fossil fuel combustion – after three consecutive years, 2014-16, in which fossil fuel use seemed to have peaked and might start to fall – suggests that even those nations most concerned about climate change are not doing enough.
“This cannot continue. It must not. To give us a chance of meeting the Paris climate goals, emissions need to fall, and fast”
The biggest emitters are China, the US, India, Russia, Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Canada, but taken as a collective, the European Union elbows India out of third place.
If the UK, a self-proclaimed climate progressive country, could celebrate the exploitation of a new North Sea oil field while at the same time exploring for shale gas and expanding its biggest airport, it should be no surprise that global emissions were rising, said Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the Tyndall Centre at the University of Manchester, UK.
“If the climate-aware EU is planning new pan-Europe pipelines to lock in high carbon gas for decades to come, is it any surprise global emissions are rising? If ever-green Sweden, currently without any major gas infrastructure, is enthusiastically building a new gas terminal in Gothenburg – is it any surprise emissions are rising?”
Aimed at negotiators
Publication of the Global Carbon Project review for 2018 is timed to focus minds in Katowice, and as a reminder of how much has yet to be done to contain climate change.
“To limit global warming to the Paris Agreement goal of 1.5°C, CO2 emissions would need to decline by 50% by 2030 and reach zero around 2050,” said Corinne Le Quéré, who directs theTyndall Centre for climate change at the University of East Anglia, UK.
“We are a long way from this, and much more needs to be done because if countries stick to commitments they have already made, we are on track to see 3°C of global warming.
“This year we have seen how climate change can already amplify the impact of heatwaves worldwide. The California wildfires are just a snapshot of the growing impacts we face if we don’t drive emissions down rapidly.”
Renewable energy grows
Paradoxically, the data in the report published in one version in Environmental Research Letters and in more detail in the journal Earth System Science Data also point to an acceleration towards renewable sources of energy: the political shorthand for this process is “decarbonisation.”
Coal consumption in Canada and the US had dropped 40% since 2005. Christiana Figueres, who in 2015 as a UN climate chief presided over the wheeling and dealing that resulted in the Paris Agreement, argues in another commentary in Nature that there are signs of promise.
Thousands of businesses in 120 countries had signed up to the Paris goals, which could bring $26 trillion in economic benefits, including 65 million new jobs in what she called the “booming” low carbon economy. “We have already achieved things that seemed unimaginable just a decade ago,” she said.
“Exponential progress in key solutions is happening and on track to displace fossil fuels. Renewable energy 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.”
But, warned David Reay, professor of carbon management at the University of Edinburgh, UK, the accounting within the balance sheet for the carbon budget 2018 was robust.
“Its message is more brutal than ever: we are in the red and still heading deeper. This cannot continue. It must not. To give us a chance of meeting the Paris climate goals, emissions need to fall, and fast. We knew this in 2015, we know it now. And yet they still rise.” – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.