WASHINGTON – Global greenhouse gas emissions have almost completely recovered from the sharp decline during the coronavirus pandemic, leaving the world just 11 years from burning carbon at its current rate if humankind hopes to avoid catastrophic warming.
The latest report on the global carbon budget was released at the height of the pivotal UN climate summit in Glasgow. His findings, based on atmospheric measurements, energy statistics and deforestation models, among others, highlight how far humanity must go to change course towards global warming.
The Annual Report is a collaborative project of researchers from 70 institutions on five continents. Since 2015, the project has tracked reductions in the amount of carbon dioxide that humanity can afford to emit if it hopes to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels. …
Then the quota was 903 gigatons – for about 20 years of emissions. But annual greenhouse gas production continued to rise despite global agreement to take action. In just six years, mankind has burned off more than half of the remaining carbon stores.
Corrine Le Coeur, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia and one of the co-authors of the report, said that only coordinated global action like those discussed at the COP26 Glasgow summit can spur the needed change.
“It’s very important what happens in the next two weeks,” Le Coeur said.
Scientists found that emissions from coal and natural gas combustion in 2021 reached even higher levels than in 2019. The main reason for the spike in emissions was economic growth in China, the world’s largest source of emissions, which derives most of its energy from coal. India, another coal-dependent country, also saw a surge in emissions as the economy recovered.
Pollution due to global warming has also increased by 7.6% in the United States and the European Union, the second and third largest sources of greenhouse gases. By the end of the year, total emissions from these regions are expected to be only a few percentage points below their pre-pandemic levels.
Despite some minor signs of progress – renewables continued to grow and the amount of carbon taken up by restored forests and renewed soils increased – “all emissions are back on their long-term trajectories,” Le Coeur said.
“This is a reality check,” she added, for anyone who hoped a year of historic social and economic turmoil would shake humankind out of its dependence on fossil fuels.
The scattered corporate commitments and modest investments included in COVID-19 economic recovery packages were not enough to put the world on a more sustainable path. In addition, voluntary country commitments presented under the Paris Agreement do not add to the required reductions.
To have at least a 50% chance of achieving this ambitious goal, the world must immediately begin to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by about 1.4 gigatons per year, which is the equivalent of planting about 21 billion trees per year.
According to the carbon budget report, emissions from coal and gas are now 1% and 2% higher, respectively, than before the pandemic began. Oil-related emissions remain slightly lower than they were before COVID due to the relatively slow recovery of the transport sector. But that number could also increase as more people book flights and hit the road.
“We are still waiting for climate policies around the world to be implemented that will really change the curve,” said Pierre Friedlingstein, climate scientist at the University of Exeter, lead author of the carbon budget.
Researchers did not expect the unprecedented 5.4% reduction in emissions in 2020 to last: a COVID shutdown is not the same as climate policy, they said.
But this year’s surge shows that the pandemic has not been a turning point. In a rush to kickstart their economies, most countries have again turned to the cheapest and lightest fuel available, regardless of the negative climate impacts.
A separate report by Energy Policy Tracker, a consortium of nonprofit and academic researchers, found that the world’s 20 largest economies have committed at least $ 318 billion to the fossil fuel industry as part of their response to the pandemic. In contrast, these same countries have committed about $ 279 billion to support clean energy.
The United States is one of the worst offenders, according to the report, with more than 70% of the energy industry’s public finances gone to fossil fuels since January 2020.
In China, the flood of recovery funds appears to have driven up emissions, Le Coeur said. The country was one of the few places in the world where carbon pollution did not decrease in the past year, and its reliance on coal as an energy source for industrial production means emissions are now higher than they would have been if the pandemic had not occurred. …
Although emissions rose sharply in 2021, many new commitments were made this year to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The G-20 governments have agreed to end government funding for overseas coal-fired power plants. As of Tuesday, more than 100 countries have pledged to cut emissions of methane, which is 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
It is still technically possible for the world to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, Le Coeur said. She pointed to one bright spot in the carbon budget report: Over the past decade, emissions have declined in 23 countries that grew before the pandemic. Most of them were wealthy European countries, but the list also included the United States, Mexico, Barbados and Tuvalu.
“These successes can be replicated,” Le Coeur said. “There is no reason this cannot be put into action other than political will.”
But given COP26’s tense negotiations on emission reduction strategies and financing to help more vulnerable countries adapt, experts are increasingly pessimistic that the world will take action in time to minimize climate impact.
Harjit Singh, senior advisor to Climate Action Network International based in New Delhi, said the mismatch between the world’s emission promises and humanity’s remaining carbon budget shows a fundamental weakness in the structure of the Paris Agreement.
Giving countries the ability to define their own contribution to global efforts to combat climate change means “we only talk about what we want to do, not what needs to be done,” he said.
Meanwhile, the odds of reaching the 1.5-degree target are getting smaller and smaller, forcing governments, academics and advocacy groups to think about a future that is very different from the world we live in now.
According to UN scientists, if warming reaches 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), one in three people will experience extreme heat on a regular basis. Coral reefs will be almost completely destroyed. The yield of the main food crops will decrease by 7%.
But countries’ current climate commitments will push the planet past that point, reaching a warming of 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the decade, the UN has found. At this point, humanity runs the risk of causing irreversible loss of species, inexorable melting of the ice sheet and catastrophic rise in sea levels. Deadly weather disasters, chronic food and water shortages and unbearable heat will become an integral part of life in much of the world.
“It’s not, ‘1.5 or we are doomed,” Friedlingstein said. Humanity can and probably will have to adapt to an even warmer planet. “But people shouldn’t think that we can reach 2.7 degrees and everything will be fine. It won’t be good. “