Good news about the climate

The road ahead for climate action is narrow, but a close look at emissions data provides some reason for optimism. According to preliminary estimates, greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change will peak again in 2022. Climate disasters seem to follow each other at a crazy speed. In 2022, the world experienced record heat waves in China and Europe, and devastating floods in Pakistan that displaced millions of people. But a closer look at energy and emissions data around the world shows that there is some good news and plenty of potential for improvement.

If emissions hit new highs in 2022, the peak is in sight

Global emissions from fossil fuels, flaring and cement production (gigatons). Source: Global Carbon Project • Casey Crownhart, MIT Technology Review

According to the Global Carbon Project, fossil fuel emissions in 2022 have never been higher. Global annual growth was slightly above 1%, continuing to rebound from a low in 2020 caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Global emissions have doubled over the past 40 years.

But while emissions are rising globally, many countries have already seen their levels fall or begin to decline. US emissions peaked in 2005 and have declined by just over 10% since then. Russia, Japan and the European Union have also reduced their emission levels.

According to the International Energy Agency, global emissions are expected to peak in 2025. Reaching the annual maximum emissions is an important step, the first step backwards in the use of greenhouse gases.

But emissions continue to rise in some countries, including China (the world’s largest emitter) and India, countries with growing populations and economies. China has seen particularly strong growth, with emissions nearly doubling over the past 15 years.

Annual emissions from fossil fuels and industry (gigatons) – Source: Global Carbon Project • Casey Crownhart, MIT Technology Review

The Chinese government has pledged to achieve peak emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2060. According to CarbonBrief’s analysis, this peak could be reached even sooner, in 2025 or sooner. The country is using renewable energy at a record pace, nearly quadrupling its installations over the past decade.

The increase in emissions in India is more moderate than in China, but the country is expected to continue to increase until 2040 or 2050. However, its total emissions are currently well below those of China and the United States, and it lags behind other countries. per capita emissions.

Economic growth becomes less dependent on fossil fuels

Carbon intensity of GDP (tonnes of carbon dioxide per $1,000) – Source: International Energy Agency • Casey Crownhart, MIT Technology Review

Emissions tend to increase with economic growth, but further progress on emissions will not necessarily require sacrificing economic gains. As the introduction of renewable energy and technical advances increase efficiency, economic growth may be possible without a commensurate increase in climate pollution.

Some countries have already started reducing emissions while maintaining economic growth. Helping developing countries do the same will be vital.

Globally, the carbon intensity of economic growth is decreasing over time, meaning that the carbon emissions associated with the same level of economic activity have decreased. This is true globally, as well as for large economies such as the United States and the European Union. This trend is most evident in China, where the carbon intensity of the economy has fallen by about 40% since 2000.

But China’s carbon intensity remains higher than most other major nations. And progress has been slowed, largely due to coal’s high proportion of the country’s energy mix – about 60% as of 2021.

Reality: Climate progress must be even faster

Although emissions have stabilized or declined in some parts of the world, even countries that are making progress are not moving fast enough to meet international climate goals.

The Paris Agreement, an international climate agreement adopted in 2015, set a goal of keeping warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, or ideally below 1.5°C.

Using climate models, researchers estimated the thresholds for total greenhouse gas emissions needed to meet these goals. This concept is called the global carbon budget, and we’ve spent almost all of it.

If we started reducing emissions earlier, our carbon budget could stretch far into the future, allowing for more gradual reductions. But today, given historical emissions, to keep global warming below 1.5°C, global emissions must reach net zero by 2050; By 2030, they should be reduced by about half. And even that may not be enough.

Emission projections will keep warming below 1.5°C (gigatons) – Source: Global Carbon Project, Our World in Data • Casey Crownhart, MIT Technology Review

Keeping warming below 1.5°C is possible, but the goal is increasingly difficult to achieve. Given that global surface temperatures have increased by about 1.1°C since 1900, we are already dangerously close to meeting global targets. How future temperature rises will depend on emissions and the sooner significant reductions occur, the more likely we are to keep warming close to the 1.5°C target.

Clearly, developing renewable energy and finding other ways to reduce emissions can slow climate change. Whether you consider this to be good news or bad news, the future will dictate the actions of the world today and for the foreseeable future.

Source: Casey Crownhart, MIT Technology Review

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