From 2014 to 2016 man-made CO2 emission growth entered a hiatus, although the economy was, and still is, on an upward trend. Some had hoped this three-year flatline signified a turning point in history, when humanity peaked fossil fuel use. Alas, it was not to be. Reporting from Bonn, Germany, where world leaders gathered at the same COP conference where the now-famous Paris Agreement was signed, scientists working at the Global Carbon Project claim that CO2 emissions are projected to rise to a record high in 2017.

Even though overall CO2 emissions have been relatively flat from 2014 to 2016, atmospheric concentrations saw a record increase in 2015 and 2016 (bars) due to El Niño conditions. Scientists expected CO2 emissions to grow in 2017 (red dots), but they expected the growth in atmospheric concentrations (red bar) to be lower in 2017 compared to 2015 and 2016, in the absence of an El Niño event. Credit: Nature Climate Change.

Even though overall CO2 emissions have been relatively flat from 2014 to 2016, atmospheric concentrations saw a record increase in 2015 and 2016 (blue bars) due to El Niño conditions. Scientists expected CO2 emissions to grow in 2017 (red dots), but they expected the growth in atmospheric concentrations (red bar) to be lower in 2017 compared to 2015 and 2016, in the absence of an El Niño event. Credit: Nature Climate Change.

The landmark Paris Agreement from 2015, now literally signed by every nation in the world except the USA under Trump’s Administration, aims to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius past the average recorded at the start of the industrial revolution. However, the individual pledges that each nation has submitted are no way near ambitious enough.

Scientists working with the Global Carbon Project estimate that world emissions will rise by 2 percent to a record 37 billion metric tons in 2017. What’s more, deforestation and other changes in land use are expected to add another 4 billion metric tons of CO2, rounding off the total number of CO2 emissions for 2017 to 41 billion metric tons.

What’s mainly driving this upward trend in greenhouse gas emissions is China, which pledged under the Paris Agreement to peak emissions by around 2030 and to get 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil sources. China accounts for roughly a quarter of all man-made industrial emissions, so any upward or downward swing in the nation is sure to have a global influence. There were reasons to be optimistic as the government announced plans to cancel a hundred coal plants and is investing heavily in cleaner sources like solar, wind, and nuclear. The country also plans to sell millions of electric vehicles in the years ahead.

 CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use and industry since 1960 for China, the United States, the European Union, India, and the rest of the world (ROW). Credit: Environmental Research Letters.

CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use and industry since 1960 for China, the United States, the European Union, India, and the rest of the world (ROW). Credit: Environmental Research Letters.

Even though China’s economy has been growing, coal use began to taper off in the last three years. This year, however, emissions in China are expected to rise by 3.5 percent, driven by heavy infrastructure works aimed to boost the economy and unfavorable rain patterns that reduced hydropower output.

There is some good news, though. According to the same report released by the Global Carbon Project, 21 countries have managed to reduce their carbon emissions over the past decade, while simultaneously growing their economies. Among them are the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Sweden.

It seems like the low-hanging fruit has been picked dry, though. In many developed countries, the rate of emission reductions has fallen considerably compared to the start of the decade. Industrial emissions in the United States are projected to fall by only 0.4 percent in 2017, compared to the 1.2 percent year-to-year average for the last decade. Oil use increased and a rise in natural gas prices slightly increased coal use. A similar situation is experienced by the European Union, whose emissions are expected to fall by just 0.2 percent this year, compared to the 2.2 percent average annual decline of the previous decade.

Surprisingly, India will only see 2 percent emissions growth for 2017, marking a huge improvement over the 6 percent year-to-year average rise in emissions it usually sees. It’s not clear how long this will last, as the country scrambles to offer electricity to its 300 million citizens still living in the dark.

The important announcement arrives while climate experts and world leaders gathered in Bonn, Germany, for the 23rd edition of the Conference of the Parties (COP). This is a tense conference, following President Trump’s announcement that he will see to it that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement — which as of last year has entered into force. The rest of the world seems determined, however, to continue on its mission to decarbonize society in hope for a better, cleaner, safer future. The Paris Agreement is larger and far more important than the whims of any person.

Right now, many of the Paris pledges remain fairly opaque. It’s clear from today’s news that the world is not yet on track to reach its climate goals. More ambitious action is required so that, hopefully, we might see emissions peak in 2018, instead of rising again.

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