The Global Carbon Project (GCP) is a scientific group that aims to paint the most accurate picture possible of the planet’s carbon cycle. It’s most comprehensive analysis to date has just been published, and sadly, it’s not good news: our greenhouse gas emissions are rising again, after flatlining for three years.
The trio of studies were released in time for the COP23 gathering in Bonn, one which aims to implement and strengthen the Paris agreement as much as possible. This news, that global emissions haven't peaked yet after all, will cast a grim shadow over proceedings.
The studies – released in Nature Climate Change, Earth System Science Data Discussions, and Environmental Research Letters – do not reveal whether this uptick in global carbon dioxide is a one-off event that will not be seen again in 2018, or if it’s the start of a new trend.
The driving factor behind this rise appears to be China.
The world’s second superpower is certainly a major player in the formation of the Paris agreement, and it is inarguably investing in its renewable (and nuclear) energy sector at a breakneck pace, but coal is still cheap and easily accessible. Although it aims to ultimately give up coal, its current use is one that can be largely tracked by following its economic prowess.
A few years back, its economy stalled, which matched with a flatlining coal output. Now, with its economy rising again, its coal use is following along with it.
The latest estimate from the GCP is that carbon dioxide emissions grew 2 percent in 2017 compared to last year. The lead author of one of the papers, Professor Corinne Le Quéré from the University of East Anglia, told BBC News that this is “very disappointing”.
“Time is running out on our ability to keep warming well below 2°C (3.6°F).”
Altogether, the world has emitted 41 billion tonnes (45 billion US tons) of carbon dioxide. Although China played, and is evidently still playing a large part in this, the blame doesn’t rest with it alone.
Emissions are on the decline around much of the planet, but this drop-off is less significant than was expected.
In the US, for example, carbon dioxide is being emitted less than it has been for some time – largely thanks to the adoption of cheap, clean energy and the switch from coal to less-carbon-rich natural gas. However, for the first time in a while, coal use has risen ever so slightly.
In Europe, emissions are still declining, but again, the continued use of coal in major nations is stopping this being as rapid as required.
India, a prolific user of coal, has regularly seen its emissions increase by 6 percent year-on-year. This was just 2 percent for 2017, but this is considered to be a temporary dip.
This research comes hot on the heels of another, one which suggested that even the more ambitious 1.5°C (2.7°F) warming limit requested by poorer and low-lying nations could be met. This was based on the idea that the climate is less sensitive to carbon dioxide than it was previously thought.
The GCP’s new assessment doesn’t negate this; if the climate is indeed less sensitive, it does mean we have more time, and hope, than we thought. What it does point out, however, is that carbon dioxide levels aren’t flatlining anymore, and they should be.
Most estimates suggest that if global greenhouse gas emissions don’t peak then drop off by 2020, then the 2°C (3.6°F) warming limit is in dire jeopardy of being breached. If 2017 is the start of a new trend, then it’s a surefire bet that we’re not going to make it.