After Five-Year Decline, Rich Countries' Carbon Emissions Are Rising Again

Illustration for article titled After Five-Year Decline, Rich Countries' Carbon Emissions Are Rising Again
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Carbon pollution in advanced economies is on the rise after five years of falling. It was good effort while it lasted?


The International Energy Agency made the announcement on Tuesday as countries from around the world gathered in Poland for coal-laden climate talks. The news doesn’t bode well for the climate, which could spiral into a state unseen in all of human existence if carbon emissions aren’t reined in soon.

The group reports that emissions are set to rise 0.5 percent this year in 35 advanced economies around the world, a group which includes countries in Europe and North America, as well as Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. The small but notable uptick comes after five years when energy-related emissions fell roughly 3 percent in those same countries.

An IEA spokesperson told Earther that emissions rose because oil and natural gas use outpaced the decline in coal consumption and increase in renewable capacity, and that a country-by-country breakdown would be available in March 2019. Regardless, the rise in emissions illustrates a few things pretty neatly.

The first is that if you want to put another nail in the whole “natural gas is a bridge fuel” coffin, please feel free. While certainly not as carbon-intensive as gas, it’s becoming increasingly clear that natural gas will not get the world to where it needs to be emissions-wise.

The rise in emissions tied with oil use also reflects the fact that transportation emission continue to be a huge problem. In the U.S., for example, transportation emissions have seen among the most notable upticks in recent years. Electric vehicles can help stem some of that rise, but despite rapid growth, they’re still just a tiny fraction of the cars sold worldwide.

Lastly, it’s impossible to ignore that developed countries are nowhere near installing renewables at the scale needed to make a dent either. Sure, corporate giants like Facebook and Apple are running largely on renewables. But large portions of the economy still run on fossil fuel energy, and continuous growth ensures that we’re still fighting a losing battle.


This follows news last year that global emissions also rose in 2017 after a three-year plateau. Combined, these trend shows that while there was some hope we’d hit peak carbon emissions, that’s just not the case. And the increase in emissions couldn’t come at a worse time.

The world needs to slash its emissions 45 percent by 2030 and net zero by 2050 in order to keep global warming to within 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels. The more emissions rise, the steeper the cuts will have to be in the coming years if the world is to meet that challenge.


“This turnaround should be another warning to governments as they meet in Katowice this week,” Faith Birol, IEA’s executive director, said in a statement announcing the uptick.

Announcing the news during international climate talks lays out the stakes for negotiators pretty clearly. While developing countries—and small island nations in particular—have been calling for higher ambition to curb carbon emissions, this year’s conference so far feels far from delivering it.


Managing editor at Earther, writing about climate change, environmental justice, and, occasionally, my cat.


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I believe this goes in the Bad Environmental News column.

Back around the time the Obama stimulus got started (say 2010 or so) a lot of the clean and green technology folks were thinking that policy didn’t matter anymore. Serious people were saying that with a simple nudge with with grants and subsidies, EVs and renewables could disrupt the entire world’s fossil fuel dependency. The analogy bandied about was how easily the iphone disrupted the Blackberry simply due to being a superior technology. This was also the period when we thought tech wouldn’t fuck up things like democracy.

So a lot of clean and green folks were banking on a Silicon Valley libertarian ethos to drive renewables disruption to save the world. During the Obama years (with favorable federal and state policies) the libertarians seemed to be right. I was about to stop using public roads and travel by drone everywhere.

Trump showed clean and green tech folks how policy still matters. And how important American leadership is throughout the world.