Scientists thought carbon emissions had peaked.  They have never been so high.

Scientists thought carbon emissions had peaked. They have never been so high.


Towards the end of 2020, as the covid-19 pandemic continued to rage, a few climatologists and energy experts made a prediction. They estimated that emissions from fossil fuels – which had just plummeted thanks to the global pandemic – may never again reach the highs of 2019. Perhaps, they speculated, after more than a century of ever-increasing releases of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the world had finally reached the “peak” of emissions.

According to a report released last month by the Global Carbon Project, carbon emissions from fossil fuels in 2022 are expected to reach 37.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, the highest level on record. This means that despite the continued fallout from the coronavirus pandemic – which caused emissions to fall by more than 5% in 2020 – CO2 emissions are back and stronger than ever.

Scientists reacted with dismay. For years before the pandemic, emissions seemed to be leveling off – raising hopes that the world was finally reaching the point when emissions would start to decline. Then in 2020, “Covid came along, there was a huge drop in emissions – and I guess we got a little overexcited,” said Glen Peters, a climatologist at the International Climate Research Center in Oslo.

Here’s why the researchers got the emissions peak wrong — and what that means for the future — in three charts:

1. History repeats itself

Over the past century, carbon emissions have never fallen in one circumstance: the crisis. When the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 shook the global economic system, carbon emissions fell by 1.4%. When the oil crises of 1973 and 1979 destabilized economies and forced people to wait in long lines for gasoline, emissions – previously soaring – came to a halt. And when the coronavirus pandemic locked billions indoors, the CO2 released into the atmosphere fell by 5.2% – a record not matched until the aftermath of World War II.

Economic crisis, of course, is not how nations want to reduce their carbon emissions. And in all of these historical examples, the temporary drop in emissions didn’t last long. After the financial crisis, emissions rebounded, increasing by around 1.65 billion tonnes in a single year.

Immediately after the pandemic, some experts thought the world would take a different approach. Countries have pledged to “build back better” and inject clean energy spending into their recovery plans. But the result was not as green as one might have hoped. According to one analysis, only 6% of stimulus money spent by G-20 countries went to areas that could reduce emissions. And as people got back to flying, driving and making things, the shows rebounded.

For most of this century, the story of climate change has also been the story of coal. Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel in the world, releasing 820 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions for every gigawatt of electricity produced. (Solar power, on the other hand, releases about five metric tons for every gigawatt of electricity generated.)

Before the pandemic, coal looked poised for a long decline – which is part of why scientists and experts thought emissions might have peaked. But over the past two years, coal has made a resurgence. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has driven up natural gas prices around the world, forcing some European countries to rely more on coal to keep energy prices low.

Thanks to China’s continued pandemic shutdowns, the world’s largest economy hasn’t ramped up its use of coal as much as it could have, but India’s use of the world’s dirtiest fuel has soared. sharply. India’s coal consumption is expected to increase by 5% in 2022, on top of a 15% increase the previous year. All of this means that over the past two years, emissions from burning coal have increased by almost a gigatonne.

3. Developed versus developing countries

Part of the problem is that, while developed countries have seen their emissions decline over the past few decades, this decline has not been fast enough to offset the growth in emissions from developing countries. China’s emissions have skyrocketed over the past 20 years as the country has grown and lifted millions out of poverty. (Despite its high overall emissions, China still has lower per capita carbon emissions than the United States.) India’s emissions are growing more slowly, but still rising.

“Fossil fuels are still the cheapest way to provide reliable electricity,” said Ken Caldeira, a climatologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science. (While wind and solar can be cheaper than fossil fuels in some cases, their intermittency – and lack of big, cheap batteries – means it’s difficult to build a complete power system from renewables only.) “It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” Caldeira said. have to put climate concerns in the background of their economic concerns.

For emissions to peak, therefore, rich countries would either have to cut their emissions much faster or help developing countries switch to low-carbon fuel sources. And that last option doesn’t sound particularly good. Disputes over the flow of money from richer to poorer countries have haunted the UN climate negotiation process for years, despite recent small victories at COP27.

“We didn’t want to subsidize a massive green energy transition for ourselves,” Caldeira said. “And the idea that we’re then going to subsidize that for countries in the South seems a bit implausible.”

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