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Climate change and energy

So much for that hope of reaching peak climate emissions

December 5, 2018

The good news is the global economy is growing. The bad news is that means climate pollution is, too. 

Growing stakes: Worldwide carbon dioxide emissions are on track to rise nearly 3% in 2018, the second annual increase in a row after three relatively flat years, according to a new report by the Global Carbon Project.

Those conclusions are in line with a separate analysis on Tuesday from the International Energy Agency, which found that rich nations in North America, Europe, and the Asia Pacific region will see an overall emissions uptick of 0.5% this year, following five years of declines.

The findings, published Wednesday in Environmental Research Letters, underscore the growing stakes as officials and climate experts meet at the United Nations climate conference in Katowice, Poland, this week. A key goal at COP24 is to finalize the rules for how nations will achieve their commitments to cutting climate pollution under the landmark Paris agreement.

In October, the UN’s climate change panel warned that meeting those pledges won’t be enough to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 ˚C, the ambition set forth in the Paris accord. That threshold could be reached as early as 2030, the UN and others have found, sharply raising the risks of extreme heat, flooding, and droughts. Under current trends, temperatures could soar by 3 ˚C to 5 ˚C by the end of the century.

False hope: Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels are likely to grow by 2.7% this year, up from 1.6% in 2017, as expanding economies around the world consume more energy, the report found. Additional increases in climate pollution are likely in 2019 as well, given these economic trends.

“We thought, perhaps hoped, emissions had peaked a few years ago,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of earth system science at Stanford and coauthor of the report, in a statement. “After two years of renewed growth, that was wishful thinking.”

The breakdown: The world’s three biggest climate polluters, China, the United States, and India, saw the middle-range estimate of emissions rise by 4.7%, 2.5%, and 6.3%, respectively. The European Union eked out an 0.7% decline.

In the United States, increased heating and cooling needs fueled higher emissions brought on by a relatively cold winter and hot summer. A tick up in light truck and gasoline purchases spurred by low oil prices also contributed, despite growing interest and hopes around electric vehicles.

China’s increase reflects a boom in heavy manufacturing—including iron, steel, and cement production—driven by global economic growth. India, meanwhile, continues to increase its use of coal, one of the dirtiest energy sources, amid surging demands in a developing nation “where hundreds of millions of people still lack access to reliable electricity,” the paper notes.

Bright spot: One bit of good news is that coal consumption may well have peaked: usage has slowly ticked down since 2013. Carbon-free technologies like wind, solar, nuclear, and electric vehicles will now need to displace growing shares of natural gas and oil as well in order for economic growth to be possible without ratcheting up emissions.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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