Record Emissions: 41 Billion Tons of Heat-Trapping Carbon Dioxide Were Added to the Atmosphere This Year 

Over the past few years, something pretty amazing and hopeful happened. Global carbon emissions began to stabilize. This was caused, primarily, by stronger emissions reduction policies in China even as the rest of the world moved steadily away from coal burning and more and more toward adopting clean energy systems provided by the likes of wind, solar and electrical vehicles.

But during 2017, there appears to have been a return to rising emissions rates from both China and the rest of the world. As a result, a rather bad global climate situation is continuing to worsen.

China’s Swing Back to Coal and More Rapid Growth Result in Rising Emissions

As the major present emitter of carbon dioxide and a host to hundreds of hothouse gas spewing coal plants, any big move by China can also really move the global carbon emission total. We saw this in practice from 2013 to 2016 as China began to reign in rampant coal consumption and as global emissions levels subsequently responded.

(During recent years, global carbon emissions have plateaued. But during 2017, a new record high was reached on the back of a return to increased rates of coal burning in places like China. The peak year of fossil fuel burning and the year at which net negative carbon emissions occur are very important factors in determining future warming. And even the best case emissions scenarios will likely lead to 2 C or greater warming this Century. Impacts from 2 C warming will be very difficult to manage with a high likelihood that at least some widespread catastrophic impacts would occur. 3 C warming would be terrible — with very widespread harm and disruption. And it is unlikely that most nations would survive the impacts related to 4 to 6 C warming. Image source: University of East Anglia.)

This year, we see a bit of backsliding by this key energy and climate player due to a combined reduction in hydro based power supply and strong annual rates of economic growth.

Drought afflicting China has hit hydro-electrical power generation pretty hard. China presently possesses about 320 gigawatts of hydro power generation capacity. This is about 1/3 of its total coal generating capacity and compares to a relatively smaller wind and solar capacity of around 150 gigawatts. So any disruption to water flowing into hydro generators can have a big effect on coal use and related downstream carbon emissions.

China also rapidly added solar this year. But it was apparently not enough to offset the impact to hydro resources which increased demand for coal. In addition, China’s rapid projected growth rate of 6.8 percent in GDP also resulted in higher overall power demand — leading to more coal burning. Overall, China’s carbon emissions grew by 3.5 percent or around 350 million tons per year. This increase is well ahead of overall global carbon emissions growth in the range of 2 percent for 2017.

U.S. and E.U. Emissions Drop; India and Rest of World Sees Rise

Other factors included a slowing of U.S. carbon emissions reduction due to a degradation of helpful climate policies by the Trump Administration. Despite this deterioration, U.S. emissions fell by 0.4 percent or around 21 million tons per year. The European Union also saw continued if slow emissions reductions of around 7 million tons per year. Environmentalists have criticized mixed policies in places like Germany that continue to protect high-carbon coal burning. But the picture for the EU has, overall, been one of slow if steady progress. India-based emissions increased by a slower than expected rate of 50 million tons per year. Another somewhat disturbing feature in the new data shows that the rest of the world saw carbon emissions grow by 2.3 percent or about 305 million tons per year.

(Most energy and climate experts did not expect to see a potential peak in global carbon emissions until at least the early 2020s. However, 2013 to 2016’s plateau did provide a hopeful look at what was possible. In order to see an actual peak, the countries of the world will have to be far more aggressive about shutting down fossil fuel based energy sources and rapidly deploying renewables. Image source: The University of East Anglia.)

So even without the big bump in China’s emissions, the world, as a whole would have experienced some CO2 emissions growth. But this single country accounted for almost half of all carbon emissions growth around the world during 2017. And it is worth noting that even a relatively minor reduction in carbon emissions by China this year would have resulted in an extension of the global carbon emission plateau.

A Problem Caused by Fossil Fuel Burning

Where the problem of increasing carbon emissions is coming from is pretty obvious. According to reports, 41 billion tons of CO2 were emitted to the atmosphere during 2017 due to human activities. Of this amount, almost 90 percent came from fossil fuel burning — accounting for 36.8 billion tons of CO2 each year. This overall rate of emission is more than ten times faster than during the last hothouse extinction event to occur on Earth.

(Annual rates of atmospheric CO2 accumulation are now higher than 2 parts per million per year. The last time atmospheric CO2 levels were as high as they are now — around 407 parts per million — the oceans were between 25 and 75 feet higher than they are today. Image source: The University of East Anglia.)

The present increase is problematic in that it also makes it less likely that warming this Century will be limited to 1.5 or 2 C. The scientific community has often identified these as safer limits for warming. But we should be clear that no level of warming is entirely safe. That present warming in the range of 1.1 to 1.2 C above preindustrial levels is already causing harmful impacts like shifting climate zones, more instances of damaging, extreme weather, worsening wildfires, and ramping rates of sea level rise that are threatening islands and coastal cities. We should also be clear that present atmospheric greenhouse gas levels in the range of 407 ppm CO2 and 491 ppm CO2e imply a warming close to or above the 1.5 to 2 C threshold range by the end of this Century even if these levels were to merely remain stable.

An Increasingly Urgent Situation — But the Means of Lessening the Damage is at our Disposal

The urgency of the situation, therefore, cannot be understated. We are presently living in a time during which the safety of global civilization requires that we rapidly reduce to zero presently unprecedented annual levels of greenhouse gas emissions. And the first step to doing this is a swift as possible cessation of fossil fuel burning enabled by a transition to renewable energy.

It is worth noting that 2017’s rate of carbon emissions growth was less than the 3 percent annual rates experienced during the decade of the 2000s. Back then, less well developed renewable energy technology and very rapid economic growth in places like China resulted in far higher annual emissions gains than we see at present. So 2017’s gain may be a blip due to circumstances as combined wind, solar, and electrical vehicle advances begin to take hold of the larger energy and emissions trend. That said, challenges to rates of renewable energy adoption and related rates of carbon emissions reduction coming from right-wing governments like the Trump Administration should not be discounted. Failure to act by leaders in the U.S. and around the world or attempts to return to increasing rates of coal, oil, and gas burning are measures that will result in serious harm going forward.

We are thus at a moment of crisis when it comes to global emissions. We can continue to move forward on replacing fossil fuels with zero emitting energy sources. Or we can return to the very harmful increases in global carbon emissions of the past — at which point the damages we see from climate change will be rapidly enhanced.


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The Global Carbon Budget

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