Global carbon dioxide emissions were almost flat for three years (2014-2016) bringing much needed optimism, but emissions are expected to increase in 2017.
The Global Carbon Project published its annual analysis of trends in the global carbon cycle on Monday (13th November) at the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) in Bonn. This blog gives a summary of the key findings and links to key events from the launch.
Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry grew at over 3% per year in the 2000’s, but growth has slowed in the 2010’s, and in the last three years (2014-2016) emissions remained flat.
The emissions remained flat, despite solid economic growth, bringing much needed hope and optimism that the Paris goals, to keep “well below 2°C” of warming, was still alive.
The slowdown in emissions growth from 2014 to 2016 was always a delicate balance, and the likely 2% increase in 2017 clearly demonstrates that we can’t take the recent slowdown for granted.
Even though we project carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry to increase 2% in 2017, large uncertainties persist and growth between +0.8% and +3.0% are distinct possibilities.
While emissions may rise 2% in 2017, it is not yet possible to say whether this is a return to growth, or a one-off increase in a longer term-trend of flat emissions.
Does a rise in emissions in one-year matter? It was important enough for the UN Secretary General António Guterres to mention it in his opening remarks to the high-level segment of COP23.
The signature of Chinese emissions
China, which drove the unexpected and rapid growth in the 2000’s and was behind the unexpected recent slowdown in emissions growth, is again a key driver in the 2017 increase in emissions.
China generates nearly 30% of global carbon dioxide emissions, and the ups and downs of the Chinese economy leave a signature on global emissions growth.
Chinese emissions went down about 1% in 2015 and were flat in 2016, but are projected to increase between 0.7% to 5.4% in 2017, with a best estimate using preliminary data of 3.5% in 2017.
The 2017 estimate is based on projected growth in coal use (+3%; the main fuel source in China), oil (+5.0%) and natural gas (+12%) and a decline in cement production (–0.5%). Coal is changing rapidly, with large uncertainties on how coal consumption will change as the Chinese economy restructures. The oil and gas estimates are consistent with decadal growth trends.
What has pushed Chinese coal consumption and emissions up? Growth in industrial production has picked up, and hydropower generation has been lower than usual because of lower precipitation. Solar, wind and nuclear growth is not nearly sufficient to make up for the higher demand.
The resumed upward trend started in the second half of 2016. But industrial growth is starting to slow down again, hydro output is picking up again, and several political signals suggest that emissions growth will slow down by the end of this year.
Chinese energy statistics have been plagued by many inconsistencies, particularly when projecting emissions for the current year. We do not know if the increase in emissions in 2017 is a one-off, or represents changes leading to more sustained upward pressure on emissions in the years ahead.
An emissions tug-of-war
There is a diversity of countries in the world, and at any time some countries have declining emissions and others increasing emissions, with changes in the global total representing a balance of these opposing forces.
Chinese emissions are projected to rise 3.5% (+0.7 to +5.4%) in 2017, as described above.
US emissions are projected to decline 0.4% (-2.7% to +1.9%) in 2017, slower than the decline of 1.2% per year averaged over the previous decade. The decline is primarily due to higher natural gas prices, leading to higher electricity generation from coal and renewables. In the latest Short-Term Energy Outlook (7 November 2017), energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are projected to decrease by 0.8% in 2017 (0.6% after leap year adjustment and including cement), but then to increase by 2.1% in 2018.
Indian emissions are projected to rise 2% (+0.2% to +3.8%) in 2017, though the latest statistics put that at 2.5%, compared to 6% per year averaged over the previous decade. The declines are due to significant government interventions in the economy, particularly the introduction of a goods and services tax and demonetarisation. It is expected that these short-term impacts will recede during 2017 with 2018 emissions growing back on trend.
European emissions are tentatively expected to decline by 0.2% (-2% to +1.6%) in 2017, slower than the decline of 2.2% per year averaged over the previous decade. This is the first time we have projected European emissions, and it is based on a simple Kaya analysis. European emissions have levelled out in the last few years, as growth in oil and gas offset the declines in coal. The slowing reductions in Europe need more attention in the coming years.
Emissions in the remaining countries, representing about 40% of the global total, are expected to increase 2.3% (+0.5% to +4%) in 2017. The remaining countries represent a mix of mainly developing countries, and have shown sustained growth rates of around 2% per year over the last decades. This large aggregate of countries warrants deeper analysis.
In summary, the growth in 2017 is predominantly due to stronger emissions growth in China and other developing countries, with the slowing declines in the US and EU not able to offset the increases.
The forgotten developing countries?
We often focus on the top four emitters (China, US, EU, India), which cover 60% of emissions. The remaining 160 or so countries, most of which are developing countries, represent about 40% of global carbon dioxide emissions.
The “Rest of the World” has been growing at 2% per year over the last decades, which is not insignificant given its size. In fact, this aggregated group of countries contributed about the same to the 2017 emissions growth as China. This aggregated group of countries deserves more attention in the years ahead.
Predicting the future is never easy, and our projection is only for 2017. What happens in 2018, let alone 2030 or 2100, is not easy to figure out!
The emission pledges to the Paris Agreement suggest that we will move away from warming of 3.5°C or more in 2100. Based on the emission pledges to 2030, we will probably end up with something around 2.5°C to 3.5°C in 2100, depending on post-2030 assumptions. Though, to stabalise at these temperatures requires global emissions to be net zero, which still requires negative emissions.
There is quite some uncertainty determining the 2030 carbon dioxide emissions levels for the emission pledges. Many pledges are hard to translate into emission values, many are for all greenhouse gases, and there are challenges when comparing emissions from land-use change. Because of this, we do not provide an estimated value of carbon dioxide emissions in 2030.
Nevertheless, the emission pledges are certainly a long way from what is required to avoid 1.5°C or 2°C of warming. To keep “well below 2°C” requires a coordinated and concerted global effort to peak emissions as soon as possible, rapid reductions in carbon dioxide emissions to reach net-zero between 2050 and 2100 while continuing to grow energy consumption, and removal of large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is not easy, and may not be feasible.
There is no country with policies remotely consistent with the requirements to keep “well below 2°C”.
Where will emissions go in the next years
It is always hard to predict the future, but one can always try. I don’t think it is the exact number that matters, but the thinking behind it.
The future pathways will depend on the aggregation and dynamics of individual countries:
- The rest of the world, covering 40% of global emissions, has been growing steadily at around 2% per year, and that is expected to continue;
- Indian emissions growth was lower in 2017, but is expected to return to trend from 2018, say around 5% per year;
- European emissions have remained flat in the last few years, and thus declines may be expected to be lower than in the last decade, putting upward pressure on global emissions;
- US emissions have declined slower than expected in 2017, and are expected to rise around 2% in 2018. With an administration hostile to climate policy, one would have to say there is upward pressure on emissions growth;
- China, perhaps the most uncertain, is unlikely to have 3% growth continuously in the years ahead, and based on current policy direction, emissions are likely to be flattish, maybe slightly up, in the next years.
Putting all this together, most factors seem to indicate upward pressure on emissions in the next years. Growth between 0 to 2% at the global level, if I was game enough to make a prediction!
The Global Carbon Project release a package of three papers:
- Towards real-time verification of CO2 emissions, Nature Climate Change
- Warning signs for stabilizing global CO2 emissions, Environmental Research Letters
- Global Carbon Budget 2017, Earth System Science Data Discussions
Link to slides