Global greenhouse-gas pollution rose for a second year, ending a lull in emissions and putting the world on track for further increases through 2040 unless governments take radical action.
The findings in the International Energy Agency’s (IEA's) annual report on energy paint a grim outlook for efforts to rein in climate change and mark a setback for the increasingly vocal environmental movement.
It said emissions levels would have to start falling almost immediately to bring the world into line with ambitions in the Paris Agreement to limit temperature increases to well below 2 °C since the industrial revolution. Instead, the organisation’s most likely scenario shows net emissions won’t reach zero until at least 2070, or 20 years past the deadline suggested by climate scientists.
Strong economic growth, surging demand for electricity and slower efficiency gains all contributed to a 1.9% increase in carbon dioxide emissions from energy in 2018, the IEA said in a report released on Wednesday.
It’s another indication that efforts to shift the world away from the most polluting fuels are moving too slowly to have a major impact on preserving the environment. While the wind and solar industries are booming, the developing world’s thirst for energy also is lifting consumption of coal and other fossil fuels, pushing more pollution into the atmosphere.
This year’s report also puts to an end the idea that pollution could already have peaked. From 2014 to 2016, carbon emissions flattened out. They ticked up in 2017 and then again last year, the latest readings on greenhouse gases that the IEA has compiled.
Protests around the world over governments’ inaction and lack of urgency on climate change has seen a move by lawmakers to set net zero emissions targets, particularly in Europe. Their ambition is to balance out growth in the developing world and to deploy technology that soaks up the pollution that can’t be avoided.
While those actions have caught the public imagination in western nations, countries in Asia and Africa continue to pursue even the dirtiest fuels to power their growth.
Developing nations have deployed more coal plants even as industrial countries work to phase out the fuel, a legacy that will be felt for years to come since power plants are built to run for decades.
Global coal demand rose for the second year in a row in 2018. Three quarters of that came in the Asia Pacific region. If global coal policies remain unchanged, then demand will keep expanding for two decades, the IEA said.
The IEA says rapid cuts in emissions are necessary to keep temperature gains from pushing past the 2 degree mark. If pollution peaked now, there would be a 66% probability of keeping the global average increase below 1.8 °C. That would require a “laser-like focus on bringing down global emissions,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director.
In its most ambitious scenario, the IEA anticipates the world could hit net zero emissions in 2070, some two decades after the date identified by United Nations scientists as consistent with avoiding the worst affects of global warming.
“Something is not right with the system when investments into fossil fuels continues even though, according to the Paris Agreement, they are supposed to be phased out by 2050,” Mette Kahlin McVeigh, director of the Climate Programme at Swedish research group Fores. “Either the political policies are too weak or the world does simply not believe it needs to change.”
The IEA reiterated the need for carbon capture, usage and storage to play its part in bringing down emissions. Governments and industry have grown ever more vocal about the need for the technology that sucks carbon dioxide (CO2) from smokestacks, with several announcing feasibility and pilot studies aiming at starting large-scale projects within a decade.
The IEA sees the business capturing 2.8-billion tons of CO2 a year in 2050, compared to 700-million tons annually in 2030. Around 170 GW of coal plants will need to be retrofitted by mid century to make that a reality.
“This calls for a grand coalition encompassing governments, investors, companies and everyone else who is committed to tackling climate change,” Birol said.