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We need to halve emissions by 2030. They rose again in 2019.

And greenhouse gases will continue to climb until nations collectively commit to much more aggressive action.

December 4, 2019
A coal processing plan in China's Shanxi Province.A coal processing plan in China's Shanxi Province.
A coal processing plan in China's Shanxi Province.
Credit: AP

The world likely needs to halve greenhouse-gas emissions within the next decade to prevent dangerous levels of global warming. Instead, year after year, we’re still pumping out more climate pollution.

Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels will rise for the third straight year in 2019, ticking up an estimated 0.6% to a record 37 billion metric tons, according to the closely watched annual report from the Global Carbon Project. Slight declines in the US and European Union were offset by projected increases in China, India, and other parts of the world, where economic growth is fueling rising energy demands.

In fact, carbon pollution is likely to climb again in 2020, given expected increases in use of oil and natural gas in emerging economies.

“Even with all the attention of the youth movements and growing climate focus around the world, we still haven’t turned the corner to stabilize and bring emissions down,” says Rob Jackson, professor of earth system science at Stanford and chair of the Global Carbon Project, an international research collaboration established in 2001 to track global climate pollution.

The conclusions were published in Environmental Research Letters, Earth System Science Data, and Nature Climate Change on Tuesday, underscoring the stakes as delegates from more than 200 nations meet in Madrid this week and next for the 25th UN Climate Change Conference.

Unless countries collectively commit to and follow through on much more aggressive action, carbon dioxide levels are likely to continue rising through 2030. Likewise, global temperatures could soar as much as 5 ˚C above pre-industrial levels this century, accelerating the melting of ice sheets, the surge in sea levels and the destruction of coral reefs.

The role of emerging economies

Global emissions were relatively flat from 2014 through 2016, which some credited to improving energy efficiency, nations switching from coal to less-polluting natural gas, and increased use of renewables. Many observers hoped the hiatus meant global emissions had already peaked. But increases resumed in 2017, then as now led by China and India.

This week’s analysis found that China’s carbon dioxide emissions rose an expected 2.6% this year, driven by increases in the use of oil, natural gas, and coal as well as cement production. Moreover, recent reports found that the nation is in the midst of a building boom for coal plants, even as its investments in solar and wind projects have plummeted in recent years.

Meanwhile, India’s emissions likely increased 1.8% this year, which would at least mark a sharp decline from the 8% growth the year before. Unfortunately, the nation’s aggressive push to develop giant solar and wind projects has fizzled in recent months, amid growing regulatory uncertainty and financing challenges.

These two nations alone, the world’s biggest and third largest producers of carbon emissions, could strain the rest of the world’s ability to meet emissions and temperature targets. Both are likely to see huge surges in energy demand in the coming years, as their expanding middle classes look to buy cars, travel by plane, and pursue other lifestyle changes that will bring their energy consumption closer to that of Europeans and Americans. If China and India achieve US rates of car ownership, for example, it would put nearly two billion new cars on the roads.

The responsibility of wealthy nations

By comparison, the report found that emissions likely declined about 1.7% in both the US and EU this year, amid continuing shifts away from coal and toward greater use of renewables and natural gas.

The carbon footprint of fully industrialized nations remains far higher, however—both in terms of historic emissions and on a per-person basis. America’s per capita oil consumption, for instance, is 16 times greater than India’s.

While these wealthier nations are now making a tiny amount of progress on emission reductions, they also relied on fossil fuels to drive their economic growth for more than a century. So these countries have a clear responsibility, as well as a greater financial ability, to cut emissions deeper and faster than emerging economies. They should also help those countries meet as much of their growth as possible with clean energy technologies, by providing low-cost financing, technological know-how, and other forms of support.

Bright spots

There are some bright spots in the report. This year’s global increase in emissions was slower than that seen in the previous two years. And coal use declined around 11% in the US, 10% in the EU, and 0.9% globally.

Meanwhile, demands for action on climate are rising around the world, as exemplified by the global youth protests and sweeping policy proposals like the Green New Deal. And clean energy technologies like renewables and electric vehicles are becoming cheaper and more popular.

But so far, wind and solar have largely been used to meet new energy demand rather than knocking legacy fossil-fuel plants offline, Jackson says. Meanwhile, the shift from coal to natural gas did help the US and Europe to flatten climate pollution levels in recent years. But now it’s increasingly being used to fulfill rising energy consumption around the world, as prices tumble and developing nations import rising levels of liquefied natural gas.

The stakes in Madrid

All this should make for sobering reading for the delegates at the Madrid summit.

One major aim of the gathering is to hammer out the details of how nations will fulfill their initial pledges to cut emissions under the landmark Paris climate agreement reached in 2015. 

But nations must do far more than meet their targets. A UN Environment Programme report last week stressed that countries will need to triple their commitments in order to keep warming below 2 ˚C, the firm goal of the Paris deal.

They’d need to boost them fivefold to have a real shot at limiting warming to 1.5 ˚C, the aspirational aim of the agreement. That'd likely require slashing global emissions 55% by 2030.

As the Guardian noted, reductions approaching that magnitude, even within a single country, have occurred only a few times in recent history: following the US’s Great Recession and amid the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"We are nowhere near on track to meet the Paris Agreement target," said Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, in a statement on Tuesday

In a new report, the group found that global mean temperatures have already ticked up 1.1 ˚C since the start of the industrial era, and that 2019 is likely to be the second or third warmest year on record. That means the last five years were almost certainly the five warmest in recorded history, as well as a period in which hurricanes, wildfires, flooding, and heat waves set new standards around the world. Each additional half degree of warming will only make such extreme weather events more common, more devastating, or both.

Deeper commitments to emissions reductions will be the central subject of the UN climate conference in 2020.

But cutting emissions anywhere near rapidly enough at this stage will require an all-out and probably unprecedented effort: leveraging carbon taxes, energy policies, R&D funding, and international accords to boost energy efficiency, push electric vehicles, develop wind and solar, cut industrial emissions, build out mass transit, and more.

That’s a tall order considering that, decades after the dangers were made perfectly clear, we still haven’t even managed to stop making the problem worse.

Update: This story was updated to include more information from the World Meteorological Organization announcement on Tuesday, and additional details about the Paris agreement.