A pair of new studies coinciding with the opening of this year’s UN climate conference in Katowice, Poland shows oil consumption increasing, greenhouse gas emission accelerating like a “speeding freight train”, and average global warming on track to exceed 1.5°C as early as 2030—10 years ahead of the 2040 turnover year recently projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“We are in trouble. We are in deep trouble with climate change,” United Nations Secretary General António Guterres told the opening session of COP 24. “It is hard to overstate the urgency of our situation. Even as we witness devastating climate impacts causing havoc across the world, we are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption.”
“For those of us who work in this space, seeing the rate of emissions accelerate is deeply dismaying, and it confirms the very clear lack of systemic action and change that we’re seeing across many lines of state, national, and global organization,” University of Washington research associate Sarah Myhre told the New York Times. “It just means that the problem will be harder to fix down the line. We’re continuing to buck-pass this problem to our kids and our future selves.”
While global greenhouse gas emissions flattened out between 2014 and 2016, they grew 1.6% in 2017 and they’re on track to increase 2.7% this year, the Washington Post reports. Carbon Brief says that will be the fastest annual increase in seven years.
“The expected increase, which would bring fossil fuel and industrial emissions to a record high of 37.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, is being driven by a nearly 5% growth of emissions in China and more than 6% in India,” the Post writes, “along with growth in many other nations. Emissions by the United States grew 2.5%, while those of the European Union declined by just under 1%.”
“We’re not seeing declines in wealthy countries that outpace the increases in other parts of the world,” said Stanford University researcher Rob Jackson, one of a team of authors behind the Global Carbon Project. The Times attributes the increase to “an unexpected surge in the appetite for oil as people around the world not only buy more cars but also drive them farther than in the past—more than offsetting any gains from the spread of electric vehicles.”
In the Post, Jackson adds that “India is providing electricity and energy to hundreds of millions of people who don’t have it yet. That’s very different than in China, where they are ramping up coal use again in part because their economic growth has been slowing. They’re greenlighting coal-based projects that have been on hold.”
Yet China says its carbon intensity—the greenhouse gases it emits per unit GDP—fell 46% from 2005 to 2017, well ahead of its target of 40 to 45% by 2020.
“Solar and wind are doing great; they’re going quite well,” said another Global Carbon Project author, Glen Peters of Oslo’s Center for International Climate Research. “But in China and India, the solar and wind are just filling new demand. You could say if you didn’t have solar or wind, emissions could be higher. But solar and wind are nowhere near big enough yet to replace fossil fuels.”
In a separate commentary for the journal Nature, authors Yangyang Wu, Veerabhadran Ramanathan, and David G. Victor point to three trends they say will bring faster global warming. Rising emissions, declining air pollution, and natural climate cycles “will combine over the next 20 years to make climate change faster and more furious than anticipated,” they write. “In our view, there’s a good chance that we could breach the 1.5 °C level by 2030, not by 2040,” as projected in the IPCC report.
“The climate modelling community has not grappled enough with the rapid changes that policy-makers care most about, preferring to focus on longer-term trends and equilibria.”
The upshot, they add, is that “policy-makers have less time to respond than they thought. Governments need to invest even more urgently in schemes that protect homes from floods and fires and help people to manage heat stress (especially older individuals and those living in poverty). Nations need to make their forests and farms more resilient to droughts, and prepare coasts for inundation. Rapid warming will create a greater need for emissions policies that yield the quickest changes in climate, such as controls on soot, methane, and hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) gases. There might even be a case for solar geoengineering.”
Climate scientists, meanwhile, “should advise policy-makers on which climate-warming pollutants to limit first to gain the most climate benefit. They should assess which policies can be enacted most swiftly and successfully in the real world, where political, administrative, and economic constraints often make abstract, ‘ideal’ policies impractical.”