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Low growth in global carbon emissions continues for third successive year

This story was adapted from a version produced by the Tyndall Centre of the University of East Anglia.

Global carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels did not grow in 2015 and are projected to rise only slightly in 2016, marking three years of almost no growth, according to researchers at the Tyndall Centre, University of East Anglia (UEA) and the Global Carbon Project.

The Global Carbon Project is a global research project of Future Earth, and the Tyndall Centre, based in Norwich, United Kingdom, hosts the Future Earth Europe Regional Centre.

The projected rise in emissions of only 0.2 percent for 2016 marks a clear break from the rapid emissions growth of 2.3 percent per year in the 10 years leading up to 2013. Global emissions grew by just 0.7 percent in 2014.

The new data is published in the journal Earth System Science Data. It shows that emissions growth remained below 1 percent in 2016 despite GDP growth exceeding 3 percent.

Decreased use of coal in China is the main reason behind the three-year slowdown.

Corinne Le Quéré, Director of the Tyndall Centre at UEA who led the data analysis, said: “This third year of almost no growth in emissions is unprecedented at a time of strong economic growth. 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.”

Click to see an infographic summarising global carbon emissions data for 2016 and earlier.

China – the world’s biggest contributor of carbon dioxide, adding 29 percent of the globe’s emissions – saw emissions decrease by 0.7 percent in 2015, compared to growth of more than 5 percent per year the previous decade. A further reduction of 0.5 percent is projected for 2016, though with large uncertainties.

The United States, the second biggest emitter of carbon dioxide at 15 percent, also reduced its coal use while increasing its oil and gas consumption and saw emissions decrease 2.6 per cent last year. U.S. emissions are projected to decrease by 1.7 percent in 2016.

The European Union’s 28 member states are the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, causing 10 percent of global emissions. The European Union’s carbon dioxide emissions went up 1.4 percent in 2015, in contrast with longer term decreases.

India contributed 6.3 percent of all global carbon dioxide emissions. The country’s emissions increased 5.2 percent in 2015, continuing a period of strong growth. 

Through the Paris Agreement decided on in 2015, nations of the world have pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by various means. The lack of growth in carbon dioxide emissions reported by the Global Carbon Project seem to tie in with those pledges. But, according to a recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), even if nations meet their promises, it will likely not be enough to limit warming from climate change to below 2 degrees Celsius – a major international target. UNEP released this report just before the start of the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which decides on international climate policy. The conference is being held in Marrakech, Morocco.

Le Quéré, who is also a member of the Future Earth Science Committee, said: “If climate negotiators in Marrakech can build momentum for further cuts in emissions, we could be making a serious start to addressing climate change.”

The Global Carbon Budget analysis also shows that, in spite of a lack of growth in emissions, carbon dioxide built up in the atmosphere at record levels in 2015, and may have done so again in 2016. That is due to poor uptake of carbon dioxide by the world’s carbon “sinks,” such as the planet’s oceans and forests.

“Part of the CO2 emissions are absorbed by the ocean and by trees. With temperatures soaring in 2015 and 2016, less CO2 was absorbed by trees because of the hot and dry conditions related to the El Niño event,” Le Quéré said. “Atmospheric CO2 levels have exceeded 400 parts per million [ppm] and will continue to rise and cause the planet to warm until emissions are cut down to near zero.”

The Global Carbon Project’s estimation of global carbon dioxide emissions and their fate in the atmosphere, land and ocean is a major effort by the research community to bring together measurements, statistics on human activities, with analysis of model results.

Le Quéré stressed the need for reporting, such as the Global Carbon Budget, to inform decisions and actions on how to respond to climate change.

Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Norway, who co-authored the analysis, said: “Emissions growth in the next few years will depend on whether energy and climate policies can lock in the new trends, and importantly, raise the ambition of emission pledges to be more consistent with the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement.”

To learn more about this effort or see associated inforgraphics, visit the Global Carbon Project website.