Story at a glance

  • The scientists who study climate change say that the planet is headed for a climate catastrophe unless global greenhouse gas emissions see dramatic reductions.
  • But the world’s continued reliance on fossil fuels is driving emissions ever higher, setting a new record in 2019 and making the cuts required to stave off disaster even more drastic.
  • In a narrow silver lining, the United States and European Union reduced their respective carbon emissions, largely by sharply reducing their use of coal — one of the world’s dirtiest fuels.

To avoid the worst consequences of climate change — scorching heat waves, desiccating drought and the resulting shortages of food and water — humanity urgently needs to reduce global emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide. But that’s not what’s happening. 

When 2019 is done, the planet will have hit a record high for carbon dioxide emissions for the third consecutive year, according to a new analysis. To achieve the Paris Climate Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times by 2100, emissions must fall by 2.7 percent every year between 2020 and 2030

Even this “goal” world of 2 degrees Celsius of warming would be almost devoid of coral reefs and would entail an Arctic that is often free of ice in the summertime. To achieve the more ambitious goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a benchmark that would prevent countless extinctions and limit destructive sea-level rise, carbon emissions would need to be slashed by 7.6 percent every year for the next decade.

Instead, human activities produced an estimated 36.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2019, a 0.6 percent increase from the previous year, the new report finds. 

“Every year that emissions go up, even if it’s just a small amount, makes the task of bringing them back down that much harder,” Glen Peters, a climate scientist who worked on the report, told the New York Times.

It may not qualify as a full-blown silver lining, but this year’s increase in carbon emissions is about two-thirds smaller than in years past. This slow-down comes from a steep decline in coal emissions in the United States and Europe, which both reduced their annual emissions, as well as a global increase in renewable energy. But, the 0.9 percent reduction in coal emissions was more than offset by a global increase in the use of oil and natural gas.

“I do think global and national policies are making a difference, particularly by driving the rapid growth in renewables, and we’d be worse off without them,” Rob Jackson, a climate scientist who worked on the report, told the Times. “But at the same time, it’s clear those policies haven’t been enough to stop the growth in fossil fuels.”

Published on Dec 10, 2019