We were duped.
Or, at least, we were given some false hope. In the three years between 2014 and 2016, global carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels had finally stopped increasing and leveled out. Emissions weren't yet going down — but there was the potential that they had peaked.
But, no. With 2017 came news that emissions had ticked up. And, critically, the newly-released 2018 Global Carbon Budget Report shows that carbon emissions bumped up yet again in 2018, and are now at their highest levels on record.
The hard truth is that unless the four major carbon players — the U.S., China, European Union (EU), and India — make ambitious cuts over the coming decade, carbon emissions will likely continue to ratchet up.
"Emissions will probably rise until 2030," Glen Peters, a global carbon cycle researcher at the Center for International Climate Research, said in an interview.
"That’s sort of a depressing answer," Peters, an author of the annual climate report, acknowledged.
But, he emphasized, our carbon-saturated fate is not yet sealed.
The big four carbon players have considerable room to make more ambitious commitments to reduce carbon emissions, Peters noted. And they carry powerful sway, accounting for 60 percent of global carbon emissions.
"The math doesn’t work if you don’t have movement by the major emitters," Kelly Levin, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute, an environmental research organization, said in an interview.
"If they [the big emitters] go down slightly, then we'll start moving," added Peters.
In 2015, 185 global nations pledged to reduce their carbon emissions at the Paris Agreement. The U.S., for example, then guided by the Obama Administration, pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
That's ambitious. But for global numbers to start falling, the U.S. along with the other big players, will simply need to do better.
What is driving the increase in 2018 CO₂ emissions?
* China strong coal growth
* India continues coal, despite renewables rise
* US unexpected increase due to weather
* EU coal & gas down, oil up
* Others (mainly developing) upwards#CarbonBudget #COP24 http://t.co/XK3W5wSapO pic.twitter.com/TL84q9GUp4
— Glen Peters (@Peters_Glen) December 6, 2018
"If those [carbon commitments] are not strengthened, emissions are expected to rise through 2030," said Levin.
In 2020, global nations will meet again — at a still undetermined place — and potentially agree to more dramatic cuts.
Meeting lofty goals
Solving the carbon problem isn't just the responsibility of the big emitters. It's everyone's problem.
But some nations might off-set the carbon produced by other big polluters, said Peters, which could help hit the emissions peak, and thereafter, a drop. If emissions in the EU and U.S. dropped quickly enough, for example, they could cancel out the still rising emissions from China — a country that alone accounts for whopping 30 percent of the globe's carbon emissions.
Reaching our carbon climax in the coming years, well before 2030, may prove more realistic than hitting some ambitious overall global warming targets, specifically one set out by the Paris Agreement: limiting global warming to 1.5 Celsius (or 2.7 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial revolution levels.
"Even at the 1.5-degree level, there will be impacts on climate," Anthony Broccoli, a climate scientist at Rutgers University, said over email.
"The important difference between limiting the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees versus going beyond that threshold is that impacts will be easier to adapt to. The adverse impacts of a 1.5-degree warming will be even worse with greater warming."
See how easily we could have solved the climate crisis if we had started in 2000! Only 4% reduction per year. Now we need 18% per year. You can thank climate deniers, lobby groups and cowardly politicians for this delay. From Global Carbon Project, http://t.co/Vc92JSjH1K pic.twitter.com/69T7gFXCr3
— Stefan Rahmstorf (@rahmstorf) December 6, 2018
But limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius this century is now considered quite ambitious. Already, humans have warmed the planet by 1 degree Celsius. And while record carbon emissions saturate the atmosphere, the clock ticks. Now, what are the chances of humanity hitting 1.5 degrees Celsius?
"Highly unlikely," said Peters.
"You're hoping China will shut down their coal fleet in a decade," added Peters. "It's not going to happen, in all realism."
To meet 1.5 degrees Celsius, society would have to peak promptly, and then rapidly reduce carbon, or decarbonize, emissions — meaning a grand 50 percent decrease in total carbon emissions by 2030.
"Even if we manage to peak in the next few years, the rates of decarbonization are unprecedented — we’ve never pulled this off before," noted Levin.
But not specifically meeting 1.5 degrees Celsius is no reason to despair. It's an ambitious goal. Prominent climate scientists assert civilization should strive for ambitious numbers in that range — like the also ambitious 2 degrees Celsius — to limit the odds of a future further damaged by climate change.
As climate scientist Michael Mann emphasized following the release of the new Global Carbon Report, significant decarbonization will almost certainly require political influence, and power.
"We've got a LOT of work to do folks. After flat-lining for 3 years, CO2 emissions have now ticked up two years straight," Mann tweeted.
"This is no time for climate change denying/delaying politicians. We must vote them out & elect in their place politicians who will LEAD on climate."
Such political movement has been stagnant in the U.S. Congress for the last 1.5 years, with a Republican-dominated government still staking a position, without evidence, that humans are not responsible for climate change.
This may soon change, perhaps led by the determination of motivated climate-savvy politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with rare veteran proponents of climate action, Senators Bernie Sanders and Sheldon Whitehouse.
A looming hurdle, however, is that although renewables like solar and wind are really ramping up — just take a drive through the sprawling wind farms of West Texas — globally they haven't kept pace with coal, oil, and gas.
"Wind and solar have got a huge mountain to climb to catch energy consumption in a place like China," said Peters.
Finally hitting our carbon peak is undoubtedly a formidable task. But with this latest Global Carbon Report, the evidence for making bold climate commitments is here.
"It should be a real wake-up call," said Levin.
Who will wake up?