Signs of Danger?

Posted November 16, 2017

Dr. Conway's Climateside Chat, November 16, 2017

I, like many others, had taken the three-year plateau in global carbon emissions as a sign that humanity’s collective efforts were finally turning the tide against the existential crisis we created. Now, new research from the Global Carbon Project predicting a 2 percent jump in carbon emissions shows that the water, figuratively and literally, is still rising.

How did this happen? Is 2017 just a fluke (or a bad dream)? Will emissions flatten back out next year? Do we still have a shot at limiting warming to less catastrophic levels? With questions as big as these I prefer to not rely on the interpretation of the media if I think I can grok the underlying data. Read on to join me as I dig into the two studies and see what’s there.

(If you would like to read the main paper yourself, it’s open access and—at only five jargon-less pages long—quite readable for a scientific paper. The 79-page, in-depth review paper that accompanies the main paper is less accessible but chock full of detailed climate data, if you’re into that sort of thing like I am. Since the first paper is essentially a summary of the longer second paper, I will refer to them as a single study for the sake of clarity.)

The big takeaway from this study is the prediction (not observation!) that global carbon emissions rose by about 2 percent (plus or minus about 1 percent) this year. This means that the real emission growth rate could be as low as 0.8 percent or as high as 3 percent—a range covering the spectrum from pretty disappointing to keep-you-up-at-night scary. According to the authors, most of this increase is due to China’s still-growing appetite for fossil fuels driven by the desire for the Western lifestyle popularized by the U.S., as well as by the U.S.’s sky-high per capita emissions.

Will emissions continue to rise? The study cautions that it is likely, and its argument is persuasive. China, the top carbon polluter, is still overwhelmingly powered by fossil fuels despite recent efforts to go green. The U.S. has undergone a hostile takeover by American and Russian fossil fuel interests, and despite internal resistance is still busy spreading pro-coal propaganda at the U.N. climate talks. The E.U. has made some progress but is still far from meeting its climate goals. India’s recent economic downturn has brought down its emissions, akin to what happened around the 2008 crash in the U.S., so while India’s emissions only rose by 2 percent this year they are predicted to jump back to around 5 percent by next year as their economy recovers.

Naturally, I went through the entire study in the vain hope that I could pick out some flaws in the logic or execution of some of the world’s top climate scientists. While I (of course) didn’t find any major crimes, there are some reasons to be hopeful. The study found that 22 countries—responsible for some 20 percent of global GHG emissions—saw a significant decoupling of GDP growth from fossil fuel and industry emissions. If this decoupling increases and spreads to other countries, it would be nearly impossible for global emissions not to fall.

The authors also openly admit they have “medium confidence” in their prediction because of the many uncertainties they accumulated in trying to estimate such a complex phenomena. For example, they note that the data they used to calculate emissions from concrete production are known to be high. This is a small contribution to the total, however, and uncertainty often cuts both ways.

Noted climate scientist Michael Mann gave the following grain of salt to The Guardian on this topic:

"It seems to me they are over-interpreting the 2017 numbers and jumping the gun a bit. Can’t we wait until the actual numbers are in to do a post-mortem?" Dr. Michael Mann, Penn State University

The study summary ends with an unusually straightforward warning: “Time is running out on our ability to keep global average temperature increases below 2 C and, even more immediately, anything close to 1.5 C.” If its predictions are correct, there is little doubt that we will overshoot our warming targets—and suffer the consequences.

If nothing else, hopefully this shocking new information prompts swift, decisive climate action from the countries attending the U.N.’s COP23 climate conference this week. If not, then it’s all up to you and me.  


—Jon Conway, Ph.D., Greenpower Research Director



Further Reading:

Bad news: Global emissions are on the rise again.

Global Emissions Increase In 2017 After 3 Stable Years

Global CO2 Emissions to Hit Record High in 2017

Fossil fuel burning set to hit record high in 2017, scientists warn

World carbon emissions on the rise again: study

The World's Carbon Emissions Started Rising Again, In Four Charts

Carbon emissions on track to rise this year

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