Global carbon emissions have stalled: good news, but is it good enough?

While the last few weeks have seen widespread uncertainty around the future of global climate action (cough, Trump) we've finally received some good news: global carbon emissions have flat-lined for the third year in a row!

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According to Global Carbon Project's annual assessment, global CO₂ emissions resulting from the burning of fossil fuels and other industry remained stable in 2014 and 2015, and are projected to rise only 0.2% in 2016. The world deserves a pat on the back for this one, considering our yearly emissions growth rate of 2.3% in the previous decade!

But what does this new trend mean for the climate, and our hope of limiting global temperature rise to well below well-below 2°C? Here we dive into the findings and explain why there’s still more work to be done.

A win for the climate can also be a win for the economy

One of the most exciting findings is the fact that the global economy grew at 3% per year despite carbon emissions flat-lining.

This is a new development compared to previous years, when falling emissions have typically been linked to a stagnant or slowing economy (think back to the global financial crisis of 2008).

This separation of carbon emissions from economic growth is a major achievement! Have another pat on the back, world.

Which countries played a part?

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Emissions trends in different countries from 1990-2015. Orange lines indicate growth, blue line indicated reduction. Source: Global Carbon Project.

China

The slowing growth rate of global emissions has been primarily driven by China. China’s emissions have recently levelled off following a period of significant growth in the 2000s, and may even be declining. If China’s emissions have reached their peak, this is huge news! This changing trend is largely a result of economic factors such as the end of the construction boom, as well as efforts to reduce China’s air pollution and increase renewables.

While levelling emissions is a major achievement, it’s important to remember that China is still releasing enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. China emitted nearly twice as much CO2 in 2015 as the US, the world’s second largest emitter.

United States

The US also contributed to this slowing growth rate in carbon emissions, thanks to improvements in energy efficiency, growth in renewable energy and the transition from coal to natural gas.

That being said, the report does not consider the influence of President-elect Trump on climate change commitments. This trend has the potential to be reversed if his administration were to follow through with just a few of his climate change election promises. More on that here.

EU

In spite of an emissions rise of 1.4% in 2015, the EU’s total emissions have still declined overall in the long-term. Developed countries collectively cut their emissions by 1.7% in 2015, an encouraging sign.

Developing countries

Contrary to the overall trend, emissions from emerging economies and developing countries grew by 0.9% in 2015. Most concerning is the world’s fourth-highest emitter, India, whose emissions grew at an extreme high rate of 5.2% last year.

What emissions are we talking about here?

In terms of fossil fuels, the plateau in global emissions is due to a drop in emissions from coal. Another cheer! On the other hand, emissions from other fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas are increasing.

In addition to the 36.3 billion tonnes of CO₂ released into the atmosphere from fossil fuels and industry, deforestation and other changes in land use contributed another 4.8 billion tonnes of CO₂ emissions. The release of CO₂ from changes in land use has increased 42% from the previous decade.

Fortunately this is all happening in the context of a significant growth in renewable energy: 15% per year between 2010-2015!

But wait. Reality check.

Emissions levels may not be increasing, but we’re still dumping 41 billion tonnes of emissions into the atmosphere each year...

As a result, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are still at a record high – and this is what matters for the climate. Rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, in turn, lead to rising temperatures.

According to the Global Carbon Project, we have already used over two thirds of our carbon budget (the emissions quota required to keep the world below a 2°C temperature rise). If we keep going at this rate, we would use up the rest of our carbon budget and break the 2°C threshold in less than 30 years. Yikes.

The average global temperature is already at 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels. With 2016 on track to be the hottest year on record, we have no time to waste.

If we want to keep global temperature rise well below 2°C – to reduce the catastrophic impacts of climate change, as outlined in the Paris Agreement – we need to be reducing our emissions deeply and rapidly, not just keeping them stable.

This latest update on our progress on global emissions is an important wake-up call. Now is the time to turn that flat-line, into a steep, downward slope.

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