Global carbon emissions expected to hit all-time high in 2018

‘World leaders and their negotiators will say “we are doing our best”. So far their best has not been enough’

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Wednesday 05 December 2018 19:02
Sir David Attenborough at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice: Climate change 'our greatest threat'

Global carbon pollution is on track to reach unprecedented levels in 2018, smashing hopes that the world had reached peak emissions.

Growing energy demands combined with an unwillingness by many nations to let go of coal and oil are expected to result in a 2 per cent boost for emissions.

Released at the major COP24 summit in Poland, the news marks the end of a year in which climate change has made itself felt, driving heatwaves, droughts and wildfires across the planet.

It comes after a UN report warned that as emissions continue to creep upwards, nations must increase their commitments to tackling global warming by five times to avoid its worst effects.

CO2 pollution shot up in 2017 after a three-year decline that led many to speculate the world had hit peak carbon.

With the data suggesting this trend has continued into 2018, experts have redoubled their desperate warnings to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible to avoid climate disaster.

Nation-by-nation breakdown of changing CO2 emissions 

“With this year’s growth in emissions, it looks like the peak is not yet in sight,” said Professor Corinne Le Quere, from the University of East Anglia, who led the analysis.

“To limit global warming to the Paris agreement goal of 1.5C, CO2 emissions would need to decline by 50 per cent by 2030 and reach net zero by around 2050.

“We are a long way from this and much more needs to be done because if countries stick to the commitments they have already made, we are on track to see 3C of global warming.”

The new analysis by the Global Carbon Project is published in the journals Nature, Earth System Science Data and Environmental Research Letters.

Some experts warned there was a sense of complacency among world leaders, as even the most progressive nations such as the UK cling on to fracking and gas plants while professing to pursue a green agenda.

Global Carbon Project 2018 findings

Overall the main growth in CO2 emissions came from increased overall energy demands

  • Chinese emissions make up over a quarter of the global total, and these grew by 4.7 per cent
  • India’s emissions grew by 6.3 per cent, with coal, oil and gas all seeing significant increases
  • US emissions grew by 2.5 per cent after several years of decline
  • Even the EU, which intends to go ‘climate neutral’ by 2050, saw an increase of 0.7 per cent
  • Fossil fuels made up 90 per cent of all emissions from human sources, and these emissions reached 37.1 billion tons
  • An additional 5 billion tons came from other human sources such as deforestation

Though coal exploitation has dropped since its peak in 2013, use of the high-polluting fuel has begun to creep back up again, contributing to a considerable chunk of emissions.

COP24 host nation Poland has drawn much criticism for refusing to give up coal, while US president Donald Trump has made his enthusiasm for it well known.

Oil use also increased in 2018 due to an increase in journeys taken by cars, lorries and planes.

Though the team concluded that the major driver behind the uptick was economic growth across the world, the authors emphasised that economic growth and emissions cuts are not mutually exclusive.

“There’s no question about that,” said Professor Le Quere.

Over the past decades, 19 nations from the UK to the US have cut their CO2 emissions while growing their economies.

Despite rapid growth in low-carbon technologies like electric vehicles and renewable energy sources like wind and solar, the team said “not nearly enough” is being done.

The world’s future under climate change hangs in the balance at the talks in the Polish coal mining city of Katowice, as leaders decide on how to implemented the Paris climate agreement.

“There’s way too much complacency in the air at these talks,” said Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change for ActionAid International.

“We’re heading for big rises in global temperatures that will lead us to the complete and irreversible extinction of coral reefs and up to 150 million more premature deaths. That is the reality ahead.”

Professor Kevin Anderson, a climate change scientist at the University of Manchester, said the new results were not surprising given the lack of ambition on display from “self-proclaimed climate progressive countries”.

“If the UK, a self-proclaimed climate progressive country, celebrates the exploitation of a new North Sea oil reserve [Clair Ridge], whilst simultaneously exploring for shale gas and expanding Heathrow, is it any surprise global emissions are rising?” he asked.

Professor Dave Reay, carbon management expert at the University of Edinburgh, said the new findings were “more brutal than ever” and must add to the wealth of existing evidence to galvanise action among policymakers.

“World leaders and their negotiators will say ‘we are doing our best’. So far their best has not been enough. For all our sakes they must now do what is required,” he said.

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