Global economic activity rose 3% in 2016, but carbon emissions are up a barely discernible 0.2%. Prior to 2014, emissions were rising an average of 2.3% a year, but since then, year to year increases have been minimal. There are two important reasons for emission staying stable even as economic activity has increased. One is strong action by the United States to promote renewable energy and reduce its use of fossil fuels. The other is a concerted effort by China to shutter its coal fired generating plants that have filled the skies over its cities with chocking smog and pollution.
“This third year of almost no growth in emissions is unprecedented at a time of strong economic growth,” Corinne Le Quéré, Director of the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia, said in a statement. “This is a great help for tackling climate change but it is not enough. Global emissions now need to decrease rapidly, not just stop growing.”
Researchers point to declining coal use in China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, as the main driver behind the slowdown in emissions. In 2014, China’s coal use dropped 3 percent. It fell another 5 percent in 2015 — and is on pace this year for another decrease, likely between 2.5 and 3 percent. Regulations to decrease air pollution, a general economic slowdown, and a three-year ban on new coal mines have contributed to the decline of coal use throughout the country.
The United States also saw a 2.6% reduction in emissions in 2015 and that trend that is expected to continue through 2016, when a 1.7% decrease is expected. The fall in U.S. emissions is due in large part to the declining role of coal and the increase in oil and gas in the energy sector. Still, the progress pales in comparison to the reduction targets set by the Obama administration, which call for a 28% reduction in carbon emissions over 2005 levels by the year 2025.
Other countries have lagged behind the reductions accomplished by the United States and China. In India, the fourth largest emitter in the world, emissions increased 5.2% last year. In the European Union, the third largest emitter, emissions increased 1.4 percent despite a period of reductions in years prior.
While the statistics are good news, they are not enough to induce mass celebrations. Keeping things levels won’t help the world stop rising global temperatures and catastrophic climate change. Massive reductions on the order of 20% a year or more will be necessary to take some of the overabundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans out of the equation. That means keeping fossil fuels in the ground instead of extracting and burning them.
Carbon dioxide, once released into the atmosphere, is incredibly slow to dissipate — it can remain in the atmosphere for decades, and even centuries, after it is initially released. That means even though emissions have been fairly steady over the last three years, atmospheric carbon dioxide is still influenced by emissions from years ago, when emissions rates were increasing.
The wild card in this scenario is Donald Trump, who wants to expand the use of fossil fuels in the United States. How the nation decided to put this climate denier in charge of things will go down as one of history’s great mysteries. Since Election Day, stock in Peabody Energy, the bankrupt coal giant, has gone up by more than 47 percent. Declining emissions in the United States have gone a long way to helping keep the world’s emissions from increasing in the last few years but under a President Trump, the three years of flat emissions could become a distant memory.
Source: Think Progress