Carbon Dioxide Emissions Hit a Record in 2019, Even as Coal Fades
WASHINGTON — Emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide from fossil fuels hit a record high in 2019, researchers said Tuesday, putting countries farther off course from their goal of halting global warming.
The new data contained glimmers of good news: Worldwide, industrial emissions are on track to rise 0.6 percent this year, a considerably slower pace than the 1.5 percent increase seen in 2017 and the 2.1 percent rise in 2018. The United States and the European Union both managed to cut their carbon dioxide output this year, while India’s emissions grew far more slowly than expected.
And global emissions from coal, the worst-polluting of all fossil fuels, unexpectedly declined by about 0.9 percent in 2019, although that drop was more than offset by strong growth in the use of oil and natural gas around the world.
Scientists have long warned, however, that it’s not enough for emissions to grow slowly or even just stay flat in the years ahead. In order to avoid many of the most severe consequences of climate change — including deadlier heat waves, fiercer droughts, and food and water shortages — global carbon dioxide emissions would need to steadily decline each year and reach roughly zero well before the end of the century.
“Every year that emissions go up, even if it’s just a small amount, makes the task of bringing them back down that much harder,” said Glen Peters, research director at the Center for International Climate Research in Norway, who helped compile the data.
The new emissions figures, reported by the Global Carbon Project and published simultaneously in three scientific journals, arrived as diplomats from more than 190 nations gathered in Madrid for another round of United Nations talks on how to strengthen their efforts to rein in the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
So far, progress has been sluggish, the new reports warn. During the 2000s, global fossil-fuel emissions were rising by roughly 3 percent each year on average, driven in large part by rapid coal-fueled growth in China. Since 2010, emissions have grown more slowly, by about 0.9 percent per year on average, as China’s need for new coal plants has waned and governments around the world have tried to promote cleaner technologies like electric cars, wind and solar power.
“I do think global and national policies are making a difference, particularly by driving the rapid growth in renewables, and we’d be worse off without them,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of earth system science at Stanford University and an author of one of the studies published Tuesday. “But at the same time, it’s clear those policies haven’t been enough to stop the growth in fossil fuels.”
The new data shows that natural gas, which is less polluting than coal but still a fossil fuel, has become the biggest driver of emissions growth globally in recent years. Japan, for instance, has relied on imported natural gas to replace many of the carbon-free nuclear plants that were closed down after the 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power station. And a boom in hydraulic fracturing has recently made natural gas the largest source of electricity in the United States, where it helps fill the gaps during lulls in wind and solar production.
“Natural gas may produce fewer carbon emissions than coal, but that just means you cook the planet a bit more slowly,” said Dr. Peters. “And that’s before even getting into the worries about methane leaks” from gas infrastructure.
A handful of countries account for the majority of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions each year, with China responsible for 26 percent, the United States 14 percent, the European Union 9 percent and India 7 percent. The new reports show how each region is grappling with its own unique challenges.
China’s emissions are projected to rise by about 2.6 percent this year as the government continues to invest in new infrastructure to stimulate its slowing economy. While coal emissions in China grew by just 0.8 percent, the country is quickly expanding its appetite for oil to fuel cars and trucks, and natural gas to heat homes and power factories.
In the United States, carbon dioxide emissions are on track to fall roughly 1.7 percent in 2019, thanks to a sharp decline in coal-fired electricity. Still, this year’s drop in United States emissions isn’t expected to be enough to offset the 2.8 percent increase in 2018, suggesting that the country is struggling to control emissions at a time when the Trump administration has moved to roll back Obama-era regulations on carbon pollution from vehicle tailpipes and power-plant smokestacks.
The European Union’s emissions are also on track to fall 1.7 percent this year as the continent’s emissions-trading system helped push roughly one-fifth of its coal power off the grid. At the same time, Europe also saw an increase in demand for diesel and aviation fuel, indicating that policymakers are failing to curtail emissions from cars, trucks and planes even as they lay out big plans to promote electric vehicles.
India, which is trying to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, was perhaps the biggest surprise in the new data. India’s emissions are expected to rise a mere 1.8 percent this year after a an 8 percent increase in 2018.
Some of that slowdown, the researchers noted, can be explained by weaker economic growth and an unexpectedly strong monsoon season that allowed the country to generate more electricity from its emissions-free hydroelectric dams and less from its coal plants. But India’s government is also pursuing big plans to promote solar power and electric vehicles, and it remains to be seen whether those policies can help the country constrain future emissions.
“India is still a big wild card” for projections of future emissions, Dr. Jackson said. “So getting a handle on how much of that drop was anomalous weather and how much a change in the long-term trend is really important.”
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