Major study points to worrying reversal of decarbonisation trend in 2018 with emissions set to hit record highs
Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry are projected to rise for the second year running in 2018, hitting new record highs that underscore the scale of the challenge the world faces if it is to avert runaway climate change and keep the Paris Agreement on track.
The latest worrying CO2 forecast comes in a major scientific study released today by the Global Carbon Project which projects a 2.7 per cent rise in emissions this year, with an uncertainty range of between 1.8 per cent and 3.7 per cent.
Even accounting for that uncertainty, the expected uptick in 2018 is higher than the 1.6 per cent increase in emissions experienced in 2017, suggesting global decarbonisation is currently heading in a backwards direction.
Overall, it means atmospheric CO2 concentrations are set to reach an average of 407ppm in 2018, which is 45 per cent above pre-industrial levels, prompting calls for urgent climate action from world leaders at the COP24 summit currently taking place in Poland.
The report is the second concerning update inside 24 hours, after the International Energy Agency yesterday warned energy-related carbon emissions are set to rise in both industrialised and developing economies this year.
It follows a three year hiatus during which global CO2 emissions appeared to have been plateauing between 2014 and 2016.
Lead researcher for the study, Professor Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, said the projected increase in emissions put the planet on a trajectory for global warming "that is currently well beyond 1.5C".
She warned that the rapid growth in low carbon technologies was still not sufficient to force global emissions past their peak, as some had hoped was happening between 2014 and 2016.
"It is not enough to support renewables," she warned. "Fossil energy needs to be phased out and efforts to decarbonise need to be expanded throughout the economy."
Global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, industry, and cement grew at a rate of more than three per cent a year in the 2000s, but then slowed from 2010 after the global financial crash before a surge in clean energy and energy efficiency investment and a shift from coal to gas power in several major markets ensured emissions remained relatively flat from 2014-16.
But increasing global energy demand is effectively outpacing decarbonisation efforts, fuelled by rising coal use and increasing demand for personal transport, freight, aviation and shipping, the suggests the study.
Published in the journals Nature, Environmental Research Letters, and Earth Systems Science Data GCP, the study concludes that the increase in emissions has been largely driven by projected growth in major economies such as China, the US, and India.
China, the world's largest contributor to emissions - accounting for around 27 per cent of all global emissions - looks set for a 4.7 per cent growth in CO2 this year, the report states, reaching an all-time high. The surge in emissoins appears to be linked to construction activity and China's recent economic stimulus, which was launched in response to the trade war sparked by US President Donald Trump.
In addition India's emissions are set to grow 6.3 per cent in 2018 with growth across coal, gas, and oil demand. The country currently accounts for seven per cent of global emissions.
Meanwhile, emissions in the US - which accounts for 15 per cent of the global total - are also set to rise around 2.5 per cent in 2018, following several years in which CO2 has fallen thanks to an increased reliance on renewables and gas.
Encouragingly the report places the blame on weather conditions requiring more heating in the winter and cooling in the summer and predicts US emissions will decline again in 2019, with cheap gas, wind and solar set to continue to displace coal power.
In Europe the report projects a slight decrease in CO2 emissions of 0.7 per cent, although this represents a slowdown in the rate of decarbonisation from the two per cent annual average decline seen between 2004-2014.
Meanwhile, emissions from the rest of the world - which makes up the remaining 42 per cent of global CO2 emissions - are also expected to grow by 1.8 per cent this year.
However, the report's findings were not uniformly bleak for green businesses and climate campaigners. It highlighted how 19 countries representing a fifth of global emissions have seen their emissions decline without negatively impacting GDP. These largely included European countries, as well as the likes of the US and Uzbekistan.
More than 70 scientists around the world worked on the 13th annual Global Carbon Budget study, which was sponsored by NGO Future Earth alongside the World Climate Research Programme.
The findings prompted a separate journal article, co-authored by former UNFCCC chief Christiana Figueres and a number of top scientists, which calls on governments to use the tools already at their disposal to push for rapid cuts in carbon emissions from 2020.
Despite the latest worrying emissions projections, it points to several reasons for optimism, including the growth of key low carbon technologies, ambitious subnational action on emissions reduction, and growing support for bolder Paris Agreement targets.
The article has also been co-signed by more than 100 figures from politics, business and civil society, and comes as negotiators at the COP24 Summit in Katowice thrash out plans to try and strengthen Paris Agreement pledges before 2020.
Figueres, convenor of the Mission 2020 group and vice-chair of the Global Covenant of Mayors, emphasised that "exponential progress" from key clean technologies meant low carbon infrastructure was still on track to displace fossil fuels. "Global CO2 emissions must start to fall from 2020 if we are to meet the temperature goals of the Paris agreement, but this is within our grasp," she said. "We have already achieved things that seemed unimaginable just a decade ago."
The report comes alongside a new league table, released today, which ranks Denmark the top country globally for implementing five key measures and technologies for combatting climate change, closely followed by the UK, Canada, and the US.
Compiled by Imperial College London, the rankings assess 25 countries' performance on curbing fossil fuel use, deploying clean power capacity, electric vehicle uptake, carbon storage capacity, and energy efficiency.
It found most countries are deploying decarbonisation policies, but are making mixed progress across the five areas. For example, while the UK performed well on carbon pricing, electric vehicles and renewables, it lags behind on carbon capture and storage capability (CCS), according to the analysis, which was commissioned by energy firm Drax.
Alyssa Gilbert, director of policy and translation at Imperial's Grantham Institute, said the research provided a "useful barometer" of the progress made by countries as negotiations get underway at COP24. "The findings also highlight the benefit of supportive government policies in limiting climate change to 2C," she added.
The news global greenhouse gas emissions are rising had been widely expected, but it should still send shockwaves around the UN Summit. The scale of the decarbonisation challenge has never been greater and the optimism generated by the plateauing emissions achieved in the wake of the Paris Agreement is waning fast. But as Figueres argues, some countries, cities, and businesses are still making impressive progress. The challenge, as always, is to ensure that progress is emulated on the global stage.
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