CO2 emissions were flat for three years. Now they’re rising again.

by Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich, NY Times

BONN, Germany — Industrial emissions of carbon dioxide are projected to rise to record highs in 2017 after a three-year plateau, scientists said Monday. It’s a sign that the world is still far from achieving its goals to limit global warming.

Global emissions from fossil fuels and industry are on track to increase roughly 2 percent over last year’s levels, driven in part by a rebound in coal use in China, the world’s largest emitter. While dozens of nations, including the United States, have been reducing their emissions in recent years, those declines have so far been offset by rising pollution from developing countries.

The new figures, reported by the Global Carbon Project and published in three scientific journals, arrived in the middle of an international conference here in Bonn, Germany, where the countries that signed the 2015 Paris agreement are discussing how to strengthen their efforts to stave off drastic climate change.

Under the Paris deal, the world’s nations vowed to hold the rise in global temperatures since the start of the industrial revolution to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). For that to happen, scientists say, global emissions from power plants, factories, cars and trucks, as well as those from land use change and deforestation, would need to peak in the next few years and then decline swiftly to zero before the end of the century.

“These numbers suggest we still don’t have sufficient policies in place to prevent global emissions from rising, let alone to force them downward,” said Glen Peters, a researcher at the Center for International Climate Research in Norway, who helped compile the data.

For much of the 21st century, global carbon dioxide emissions increased at a rate of more than 2 percent per year, as rapidly industrializing countries like China and India built hundreds of coal plants and put millions of new cars on the road. The link between economic development and emissions growth seemed inextricable.

Then came an unexpected twist: From 2014 to 2016, industrial emissions barely grew at all, even as the global economy continued to expand. Some observers wondered if the sharp cost reductions in renewable energy, combined with the growing push to tackle climate change in the United States, Europe and China, had fundamentally altered the world’s carbon trajectory.
This year’s rebound in emissions suggests that it’s too soon to celebrate.

China, which accounts for more than one-quarter of the world’s industrial greenhouse gases, still wields heavy influence over global trends. In recent years, China’s coal use had begun tapering off as industrial growth slowed and the country began transitioning to a service-oriented economy. Officials in Beijing have vowed to clean up air pollution in cities, cancel plans for new coal plants and invest heavily in cleaner wind, solar and nuclear power.

But, after a brief dip last year, China’s emissions are projected to rise approximately 3.5 percent this year. Local governments invested heavily in infrastructure and construction projects to stimulate growth, while unfavorable rainfall patterns have reduced output from the nation’s hydropower dams, said Lauri Myllyvirta, who analyzes China’s energy trends for Greenpeace.

Under the Paris agreement, China has pledged that its overall emissions will peak by 2030. But the precise timing of that peak remains uncertain. Mr. Peters added that China’s emissions growth appeared to be slowing by the end of 2017, and this year’s spike could prove short-lived.

India, a relatively poor but fast-growing country, also remains a wild card. The country’s carbon dioxide emissions increased just 2 percent this year, in contrast to the 6 percent annual growth seen over the last decade, in part because of economic fluctuations that may prove temporary. One big question going forward is whether India can industrialize without using the same amount of coal that China did in the 2000s.

On the flip side, the Global Carbon Project found, at least 21 countries have managed to cut their emissions significantly while growing their economies over the past decade, including the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Sweden. These countries have steadily transitioned away from energy-intensive industries — or have outsourced manufacturing to countries like China — while increasing investments in efficiency and cleaner energy.

But there are signs that emissions reductions in these wealthier countries have decelerated of late. In the United States, fossil-fuel emissions are projected to fall by approximately 0.4 percent this year, compared to an average decline of 1.2 percent per year over the past decade.
Much of the fall in American emissions has come as increasing supplies of natural gas, wind and solar power have driven hundreds of coal plants into retirement. But emissions from sectors like transportation and buildings remain stubbornly high, and with the Trump administration dismantling domestic climate policies, it is unclear how far the country’s emissions will continue to fall in the coming years.

Similarly, the European Union’s emissions are expected to fall just 0.2 percent this year, a smaller decrease than the 2.2 percent average annual decline of the previous decade.
In an editorial published in Environmental Research Letters, researchers affiliated with the Global Carbon Project warnedthat global emissions could rise again in 2018 without stronger decarbonization efforts.

“Every year that goes by without an emissions peak,” Mr. Peters said, makes the job of cutting greenhouse gases quickly enough to stabilize global warming this century “that much harder.”


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