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News Extra: World CO2 emissions stay flat for third year

01 December 2016

The slowdown in the Chinese economy since 2012 and declining consumption of coal in the US played a significant role in keeping down global emissions of carbon dioxide, according to a new report. The Global Carbon Project annual analysis shows that CO2 emissions in 2016 were up only 0.2%, the third consecutive year with negligible change despite a rise in economic growth.

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The annual output of carbon dioxide from the use of fossil fuels increased by about 3% per annum through the first decade of this century. Thanks to the global recession, emissions started to slow down in 2010 and have now stalled for the past three years at around 36.4bn tonnes of CO2. This could be an indication that global CO2 emissions have peaked.

China's rapid economic expansion, which saw two new coal fired power stations being built every week, drove the global rise in CO2 over the past 16 years. But there has been a sharp slowdown in coal use since 2012, driving Chinese CO2 emissions down 0.7% in 2015 according to this study, and a further 0.5% in 2016.

US emissions in 2016 continued a downward trend that began in 2007. They were down 2.5% in 2015 and a further 1.7% decline is projected for this year. The drop is due to a reduction in demand for American coal, something that President-elect Trump has vowed to change. The report says wind, solar, and gas are continuing to displace coal in US electricity production.

While US and Chinese emissions were going down, India's have been going up significantly. They have been growing by around 6% per annum over the last decade and slowed marginally to 5% in 2016. This is expected to continue as India plans to double domestic coal production by 2020.

What makes the three-year trend interesting is the fact that the global economy grew at more than 3% per year during this time. Previously, falling emissions were driven by stagnant or shrinking economies, such as during the global financial crisis of 2008.

Developed countries altogether cut emissions by 1.7% in 2015, despite growth of 1.4% in the European Union after more than a decade of declining emissions. Emerging economies and developing countries saw growth of 0.9%.

Also, the transfer of CO2 emissions from developed countries to less developed countries (via trade of goods and services produced in places different to where they are consumed) has declined since 2007.

Deforestation and other changes in land use added another 4.8 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2015, on top of the 36.3 billion tonnes emitted from fossil fuels and industry. This is a significant increase by 42% over the average emissions of the previous decade.

This jump in land use change emissions was largely the result of increased fires at the deforestation frontiers, particularly in Southeast Asia, driven by dry conditions brought by a strong El Niño in 2015-16. In general, though, long-term trends for emissions from deforestation and other land use change appear to be lower for the most recent decade than they were in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The authors say it is far too early to proclaim a global peak in emissions, but other observers believe we could be at an important moment.

"This could be the turning point we have hoped for," Prof David Reay from the University of Edinburgh told the BBC.

"Ever since the industrial revolution our global carbon emissions have been tightly bound to economic growth. To tackle climate change those bonds must be broken and here we have the first signs that they are at least starting to loosen."

However, the report says there are a growing number of uncertainties ahead.

While China's emissions have slowed, there are worries they could accelerate again as the building of coal powered stations has continued.

President-elect Trump has promised not only to revive the US coal industry but to "cancel" the Paris Climate Agreement where countries agreed to voluntarily reduce their emissions of CO2.

The Global Carbon Project brings together some of the world’s top climate researchers and the new analysis was published in the journal, Earth System Science Data.

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