Grim news for climate as carbon emissions reach new record high

By Mark Lynas

November 13, 2017

Selma Njukwage in her drought-ravaged maize field in Tanzania. Photo by Hannah Smith Walker

Hopes that the world might be seeing an early peak in global carbon emissions were dashed today with the release of the latest Global Carbon Project report. Emissions barely rose at all in 2014-2016, despite steady growth in GDP, leading some to suggest that humanity had turned the corner in tackling climate change. However, carbon releases rose sharply again in 2017, with fossil fuel emissions hitting a new all-time record of 37 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

The bad news comes as policy-makers gather for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 23) at Bonn this week. The Global Carbon Project data, which involve numerous scientists from different institutions and the simultaneous publication of three major peer-reviewed journal papers, reveals a 2 percent rise in all human-originated greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, yielding a grand total of 41 billion tonnes of CO2.

Global CO2 emissions appear to be going up strongly once again after a three-year stable period, said Prof. Corinne Le Qu r , lead researcher and director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at UEA. This is very disappointing. Time is running out on our ability to keep warming well below 2 C let alone 1.5 C.”

The main source of increased emissions seems to be an uptick in coal burning in China, where increased industrial production and reduced hydroelectric generation led to a resurgence in coal consumption. The United States also saw a slight rebound in coal use, after years of falling consumption, due to cheap fracked natural gas and increased use of renewables.

The return to growth in global emissions in 2017 is largely due to growth in Chinese emissions, projected to grow by 3.5 percent in 2017 after two years with declining emissions, said Dr. Glen Peters of the CICERO Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, who led one of the studies. The growth in 2017 emissions is unwelcome news, but it is too early to say whether it is a one-off event on a way to a global peak in emissions, or the start of a new period with upward pressure on global emissions growth.

Meanwhile, world temperatures continue to rise rapidly. The five warmest years in terms of average global temperatures have all occurred since 2010, and 16 of the 17 hottest years have all come since 2000. The year 2017 is on track to be the second-warmest on record, after the record-breaking highs seen in 2016. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations reached 403 parts per million last year and are expected to rise another 2.5ppm in 2017. They are likely now the highest they ve been in at least 3 million years.

While the report states that renewables have increased by a rapid 14 percent each year, with a record installation of 161 gigawatts of renewable generating capacity in 2016, this is from a very small base and makes little difference to overall global emissions. For China, the largest emitter, the researchers state: “Solar, wind and nuclear growth is not nearly sufficient to make up for the combination of higher energy demand and lower hydro output.”

According to the 2017 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, renewables still only account of 3.2% of global primary energy, barely changed at all from the previous year. Renewable energy’s massive growth added 55 mtoe (million tonnes of oil equivalent) to global primary energy, but oil consumption grew by 75 mtoe and natural gas by 57 mtoe. Between 2000 and 2016, 80% of the increased global primary energy supply has come from fossil fuels. Oil consumption has now hit 97 million barrels per day, and is expected to cross the 100 millon barrels per day threshold in a few years.

The closure of carbon-free nuclear capacity elsewhere in the world, ironically often at the behest of environmental campaigners who claim to be also concerned with tackling climate change, has also boosted coal. Germany, where the UN climate summit is being held, is the sixth largest emitter in the world, after China, USA, India, Russia and Japan. Germany is now forecast to miss its climate targets because lost nuclear generation has meant a continuing reliance on dirty coal.

Germany was called “Europe’s worst offender on climate” in a report released last week by the campaign group Energy For Humanity. Because renewables growth barely compensates for the nuclear shutdown, “Germany does not deserve its reputation as a climate leader,” EFH’s director Kirsty Gogan said. France, however, with this week s timely decision to not force accelerated shut-downs on its nuclear fleet, is bound to stay on top as one of the most decarbonized nations, while Germany falls further behind,” she added.

Overall Europe’s rate of decarbonisation has slowed since the previous decade, the opposite of what European policymakers have repeatedly pledged in numerous speeches about the supposed seriousness of climate change. The EU’s emissions are projected to decline by a negligible 0.2% in 2017. The failure of Europe and the US to cut emissions significantly means that growth in the developing world – where per-capita emissions are dramatically lower than in rich countries – is not offset.

After all the hype and warm words after the successful Paris climate meeting, Bonn is likely to see a serious reality-check. Decarbonising the global economy is proving to be a hard task, made harder by ideological preferences for renewables over nuclear, and the continued lack of serious grid-scale electricity storage options. For most countries – even self-professed climate leaders like Germany – fossil fuels continue to be the most reliable and the cheapest option for their energy supply. The chance of meeting the 2 degrees target gets slimmer by the day.