Global carbon dioxide emissions surged to record levels the year after the landmark 2016 Paris climate agreement was signed.
Energy-related emissions climbed 1.4 percent to 32.5 gigatons in 2017, the International Energy Agency reported yesterday in its annual survey of global carbon levels. The increase is the equivalent of adding 170 million cars to the road, the agency said.
The uptick—coming on the heels of the major international climate deal—signals an abrupt end to several years of stagnant emissions growth and raises questions about the world’s commitment to reducing carbon levels.
“It’s not good news,” said Rachel Cleetus, policy director for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It certainly is a sign that we have a great deal of work to do to meet the commitments that countries made in Paris to limit emissions and the harmful effects of climate change.”
Asia accounted for two-thirds of the increase in global carbon emissions. Carbon dioxide emissions also climbed in the European Union.
Those increases stood in contrast to the United States, which posted the largest year-over-year decline in carbon emissions of any advanced economy. The decline was all the more notable given President Trump’s outspoken opposition to global attempts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and his plans to withdraw from the Paris deal.
The IEA figures were not particularly surprising, analysts said, as a strong global economy and low energy prices prodded emissions higher. Growth in emerging economies like China and India has driven global emissions growth for much of the last decade, they noted. In that regard, the growth of emissions in 2017 represented a return to the norm following stagnating carbon levels in 2015 and 2016.
The numbers nevertheless laid bare the challenges facing climate hawks as they seek to tame an increase in global temperatures. An improved economic landscape worldwide resulted in a 2.1 percent increase in demand for energy. Roughly three-quarters of that increase, or 72 percent, was satisfied by fossil fuels.
Meanwhile, the world backslid on other key metrics like energy efficiency. Global energy intensity still improved by 1.7 percent. But that was below an average of 2.3 percent over the last three years and short of the 3 percent annual reduction that analysts say is necessary to keep global increases in temperature to around 2 degrees Celsius.
Demand for oil remained as robust as ever. Oil demand rose 1.5 million barrels per day, or by 1.6 percent. That was twice the average annual growth rate witnessed over the last decade, IEA said.
A growing penchant for bigger and less efficient vehicles in the United States was a big reason for that jump, analysts said.
“What it underscores is why transportation as a sector is politically so difficult because you’re requiring everyone to do something,” said Michael Mehling, deputy director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
‘Just a blip’?
The IEA report was not uniformly bleak from an emissions perspective. Some of the trends figure to be temporary or at least subject to changes in the weather.
Rising Chinese demand for electricity in 2017—which boosted power plants’ appetite for coal and sent emissions from Asia’s largest economy soaring—was the result of a brutally hot summer, said Dan Klein, head of global coal research at S&P Global Platts Analytics.
“I think [if it weren’t for] the increase in overall demand, the biggest story would have been the increase in renewables,” Klein said, noting Chinese wind and solar output were up 21 percent and 38 percent, respectively, year over year. “If you have a slowdown in power demand growth, especially if the weather is more normal, these trends will have a much bigger impact in 2018.”
Indeed, the world’s emissions story might have been significantly worse if not for renewables’ strong year. Renewables boasted the highest increase of any energy source, with the United States and China accounting for half of the sector’s growth, IEA reported.
The impact of increased renewable generation was particularly evident in the United States, where emissions fell for the third consecutive year. U.S. carbon emissions were 810 million tons in 2017, IEA reported, a decrease of 0.5 percent from 2017. Renewables and decreased electricity demand were largely responsible, the IEA said.
In contrast, emissions in the European Union increased by 1.5 percent, or 50 million tons. That represented a reversal from recent years and was mainly due to strong demand for oil and gas, IEA said.
“Time will tell if this is just a blip or a long-term trend, but the change in trend is not good,” said Glen Peters, research director at the Center for International Climate Research.
The emissions discrepancy between climate-conscious Europe and the fossil-fuel-loving United States highlights the challenges facing climate hawks under the Paris Agreement, analysts said. While the carbon-cutting compact can boast an achievement in getting most of the world to set a target for emission reductions, the policy lacks teeth, they added.
“It tells us a lot about the power of innovation and the power of market fundamentals over policy commitment,” said Mehling, the MIT professor. “Right now, one quick interim conclusion is it underscores just how vastly inadequate our policies are. Even some of the forefront countries are running behind.”
Both scope and ambition are needed for climate efforts to succeed, said Robert Stavins, a professor of energy and economic development at Harvard University. Paris succeeded in the first by bringing countries together to settle on a target, but the second remains a question, he added.
“There is a huge amount of work to be done, there’s no denying it,” Stavins said.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.