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Emissions still rising = global carbon budget running out

By November 11, 2022Agenda, Climate Diplomacy

The world is rapidly using up its remaining carbon budget by expanding fossil fuel use when it should be urgently slashing it. That is the grim prognosis of scientists compiling an annual progress report on both the sources of greenhouse gas emissions and their sinks.

In a year when the impacts of climate change became ever clearer in every region of the world, emissions remain at record levels, with no sign of the decrease that is urgently needed to limit warming to 1.5°C, according to the team behind the Global Carbon Project report.

In fact, the scientists, from the University of Exeter, the University of East Anglia, CICERO and Ludwig-Maximilian-University, Munich, concluded that there is now a 50% chance that global warming of 1.5°C will be exceeded in nine years if current emissions levels persist.

Total global CO2 emissions are likely to reach 40.6 billion tonnes (GtCO2) in 2022. Fossil fuels are the main catalyst for this growth, and are projected to rise 1% this year compared to 2021, reaching 36.6GtCO2. This is above levels seen in 2019, before the pandemic hit.

In particular, scientists have pointed the finger at oil. It is the largest contributor to total emissions growth, fuelled in large part by the rebound in international aviation following the Covid-19 pandemic, which has seen its emissions soar above 2021 levels. Coal emissions are also higher than last year.

Diminishing budget

The result? The remaining global carbon budget is running out, and fast. If emissions remain at 2022 levels, humanity has just nine years left till it overshoots its chances (which are in any case only at 50%) of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Another 30 years of emissions at 2022 levels would see the 2°C limit breached.

To eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, emissions need to fall by around 1.4 GtCO2 each year – a level comparable to the fall resulting from Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020.

There were signs of some progress. Scientists noted that the long-term emissions growth rate has slowed. During the 2000s, there was an average annual rise of 3% per year, but in the past decade this has fallen to around 0.5% a year.

There were regional differences too. The scientists forecast that emissions would fall by 0.9% in China and by 0.8% in the EU. However, they are likely to rise 1.5% in the USA and 6% in India. The rest of the world combined is predicted to boost their emissions by 1.7%. But though the research team welcomed the declining trend, it warned that it was nowhere near what was needed.

Natural sinks damaged

The team also analysed trends in carbon storage in sinks such as trees, wetlands and the ocean. These continue to absorb around half the CO2 emitted. However, the power of nature to mitigate climate change is declining as climate change takes hold. The growth in CO2 absorbed by oceans fell by around 4% in the decade to 2021, while growth in carbon sequestered on land dropped by 17%.

Though deforestation is a major source of emissions at around one tenth of that from burning fossil fuels, half the emissions are counterbalanced by carbon removal through tree planting. If deforestation is stopped and forests are instead restored and expanded, there is a significant opportunity to both cut emission and increase the power of forests to remove more carbon from the atmosphere.

The world is at a turning point. The turbulent pattern of emissions this year has resulted from the pandemic and the energy crisis. Governments should not be distracted by global crises – if they respond to these by turbo-charging clean energy investments and planting, instead of cutting,

trees, global emissions could rapidly start to fall.

But if urgent and sustained cuts to emissions are not prioritised, the global climate will destabilise further, risking cascading threats. The Global Carbon Budget sets a clear route for governments and industry to follow – it is time they sped up the journey.