climate change

We’re Destroying the Climate Even Faster Than We’d Thought

Every silver lining has a smog of gray. Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

Two years ago, humanity’s chances of averting catastrophic climate change looked slim. A landmark international agreement on reducing greenhouse emissions had been inked — but that accord was vague, nonbinding, and already getting flouted. Oil companies were still scouring the Earth for new reserves, developing countries were chasing the American dream of unsustainable sprawl, and the world’s most powerful country had just awarded the only major political party in the industrial world that rejects the scientific consensus on climate change with full control of its national government.

And yet, there was one silver lining behind this cloud of gray smog: While humanity’s annual output of carbon emissions was wildly unsustainable, it had finally stopped rising: For three straight years, the growth rate of annual carbon emissions had hovered near zero, even as the global economy and population continued to swell.

But 2017 put an end to that streak, as emissions crept up by 1.6 percent. And now, a new report suggests that last year wasn’t an aberration — the three-year plateau was.

This year, global carbon emissions are expected to rise by roughly 2.7 percent — a rate comparable to a “speeding freight train” — according to new research from the Global Carbon Project, a collective comprised of more than 50 scientific institutions, and a leading authority on carbon pollution.

To appreciate the implications of this surge (and the propriety of the scientists’ locomotive metaphor): In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that the world was on pace to suffer widespread, climate-induced food shortages by 2040; when one takes 2018’s surge in emissions into account, such calamities could plausibly arrive by 2030.

In broad-brush terms, the reason for 2018’s spike in emissions boils down to this: Humans are developing renewable energy sources — and adopting energy-conserving technologies — at a fast pace, but we’re increasing our consumption of fossil fuels even faster.

Three-hundred million Indians lacked electricity at the start of 2018, and the Indian government doesn’t want them to wait for advances in solar technology before experiencing the miracle of the light switch. So, India’s emissions are expected to increase by (roughly) 6.7 percent this year, as the state ramped up efforts to expand access to electricity.

China is investing massive amounts of capital in renewables. But the Communist Party needs unceasing economic growth to safeguard its legitimacy — so, it allowed its coal plants to increase production in 2018, for the sake of supporting (yet another) multi-trillion-dollar construction stimulus. Thus, its emissions are expected to swell by (roughly) 4.7 percent this year.

Meanwhile, the combination of a growing, global middle class — and relatively low gas prices — has led the world’s consumers to purchase more cars, and drive them more frequently, across longer distances.

In the United States, emissions appear to be up 2.5 percent this year — although, there is some reason to think that that spike might be the aberrant result of an unusually cold winter in some parts of the country, and an unusually hot summer in others. Before 2018, American emissions had been in decline for several years (although, some of that dip was a function of the U.S. outsourcing its carbon footprint to other countries).

The report comes as representatives from nearly 200 countries gather in Poland to negotiate over the unsettled details of the Paris climate accord. The Trump administration has already undermined the prospects that the summit in Katowice will produce significant progress, by raising objections to the idea that developed countries have a duty to help developing ones finance their transitions away from fossil fuels, and adapt to climate disruptions — a core provision of the Paris Agreement. (While Trump has announced America’s intention to exit the agreement, the U.S. cannot formally withdraw until 2020.)

The primary goal of the Paris Agreement is to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees above preindustrial levels, an objective that will be impossible to achieve unless global carbon emissions enter a rapid decline in the near-term future. The Global Carbon Project’s report suggests that global greenhouse emissions are likely to rise again in 2019.

We’re Destroying the Climate Even Faster Than We’d Thought