Some Good News About Global CO2 Emissions? - Pacific Standard

Global CO2 Emissions From Fossil Fuels Held Steady in 2016

Overall emissions are still increasing, though—and we need big cuts to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
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Chinese street vendors at a market outside a state-owned coal-fired power plant near the site of a large floating solar farm construction project on June 14th, 2017, in Huainan, Anhui province, China.

Chinese street vendors at a market outside a state-owned coal-fired power plant near the site of a large floating solar farm construction project on June 14th, 2017, in Huainan, Anhui province, China.

There's some good news as climate negotiators prepare for the COP23 climate talks, beginning in Germany on November 6th: Global carbon dioxide emissions from energy production and industry were flat for the third year in a row in 2016, at about 35.8 gigatons.

China, Russia, the United States, and Japan all reduced CO2 in 2016. Europe's emissions stayed about the same, while India's increased, according to a new report from the European Commission's Joint Research Centre.

China, the U.S., the European Union, India, Russia, and Japan are still the world's largest emitters of CO2, accounting for 51 percent of the world's population and 68 percent of total global CO2 emissions. "It is a sign of hope," says Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann. "[The new report] suggests that we are starting to see dividends from efforts to move toward renewable energy and cut carbon emissions."

Reaching the goals of the Paris climate agreement will require cutting emissions by about 2 percent per year for the next few decades, Mann said, adding that it's doable but requires the world to act now. Between 1970 and 2012, overall greenhouse gas emissions increased by 91 percent before starting to slow down. "Flat-lining isn't enough," Mann says; "we need to bend the curve down dramatically in the years ahead."

The report from the JRC also shows that emissions of the two other main heat-trapping greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide, continued to increase in 2016.

Stefan Rahmstorf, a climate physicist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, says that, even though CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel sources are down, global emissions overall are still increasing, mainly because of changes in terrestrial ecosystems, including deforestation in the Amazon Basin.

That's leading to higher concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's greenhouse gas index. Recent research suggests that a temperature spike from El Niño in 2015 and 2016 was a significant contributor to the overall increase the last two years.

"Although emissions in the E.U. and U.S. have been declining for quite some time, this reduction is still very far from the speed of reduction required to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement," Rahmstorf says. "Thus, despite some small positive signs there remains an increasingly urgent need to finally turn the tide of emissions."

In 2016, CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning decreased by 2 percent in the U.S. and Russia and 1 percent in Japan, but increased 5 percent in India, which doesn't yet show signs of decoupling growth from emissions. By contrast, Brazil's emissions fell 6 percent while its economy grew.

The annual emissions tallies from the JRC will become increasingly important in the coming years, as countries move toward implementing and verifying the main goal of the Paris Agreement: to cap global warming at less than two degrees Celsius. Starting in 2023, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will implement reviews, called "stocktakes," every five years to assess how countries are progressing toward meeting their pledges under the climate deal.

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