5 Big Trends That Increased Earth’s Carbon Pollution

For the third year in a row, carbon emissions from fossil fuels have hit a record high.

A coal-fired power plant in Kosovo release smoke into the sky.
Coal-fired power plants, like this one in Kosovo, contribute to rising levels of global carbon pollution. (Reuters / Ognen Teofilovski)

The world’s carbon pollution from fossil fuels rose this year, reaching a record high, according to new research published today. This is the third year in a row that carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil fuels have increased.

“Obviously it’s a bad thing,” Rob Jackson, an Earth-science professor at Stanford University who led the new research, told me. “It’s just one more year where we churn along emitting record levels of carbon-dioxide pollution. The years and decades are slipping by.”

The record high has come even as renewables have seen rapid growth, especially in America. The United States is now the world’s second-largest market for solar energy, slightly edging out India, according to new data compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “Both are about half the size of China,” Jenny Chase, its head solar analyst, told me.

The new estimate of 2019’s carbon emissions was conducted by the Global Carbon Project, which Jackson leads. Its results were published today across three journals: Environmental Research Letters, Nature Climate Change, and Earth System Science Data.

Here are five ways to understand the biggest findings. A few of them are even encouraging.

  1. Global GDP rose faster than carbon pollution.

In many ways, this is the most encouraging news among these findings.

Historically, the rise in carbon emissions has closely tracked the growth of the world’s economy. Last year, for instance, carbon pollution rose by 2.7 percent, while the global economy grew by 3.0 percent.

This year, the global economy is predicted to grow by about 3.0 percent again, according to the International Monetary Fund’s October estimate. But its overall carbon emissions will only increase by about 0.6 percent.

“The glimmer of hope is that the growth [in carbon emissions] is slower than in the last two years,” Jackson said. “We need to be reducing emissions, though, not slowing growth.”

  1. Coal’s death is accelerating in North America and Europe. In China, not so much.

The slower growth in carbon pollution was driven mostly by the collapse of the coal industry in the West.

In both the United States and Europe, coal use fell by at least 10 percent this year, the project found. Coal’s decline is actually speeding up in both places: In the European Union, from 2013 to 2018, coal use fell by what now seems like a mere 5 percent a year. Meanwhile, in the United States, power companies have closed more than 500 coal-burning power plants since 2010, and they are not planning to build any new ones.

Perhaps the most staggering fact: In the United States, the amount of power generated by coal has been halved since 2005, the study finds.

But coal is not declining everywhere. Coal use in China rose by about 1 percent this year, Jackson noted. That may not sound like much, but coal is such a carbon-intensive fuel—and China burns so much of it—that it translates to a lot of new emissions. “China is responsible for at least half of global coal production now,” Jackson said.

China’s emissions from other fuels are surging too. Carbon pollution from oil, natural gas, and cement production all leaped by 6 percent this year. But coal is still king, generating two-thirds of China’s fossil-related carbon pollution.

That surge in energy use has allowed China to catch up to the rest of the world economically. China’s per-person carbon emissions “are now as high or higher as the average country in Europe,” Jackson noted.

“India has a much bigger problem with energy poverty than China does,” he added. “So China’s increase is a big part of the global rise this year.”

  1. Renewables are growing, but not fast enough.

“We’re still seeing a strong rise in renewables around the world and in the United States,” Jackson said. “That’s the good news.”

The bad news is that there just aren’t that many solar and wind farms in the world, so even massive year-over-year growth can generate only a relatively small amount of new electricity. “In the U.S., for the last five years, renewables have grown at about 11 percent per year,” he said. “Even if natural gas had grown by a little more than 2 percent per year, that’s more energy gain than the 11 percent growth in renewables, because the gas base is so much bigger.”

“Even the 1 percent growth in oil use in the United States is as much or more energy than the increase in renewables,” he added. “I think people don’t quite understand that we can have such rapid growth in renewables and still have fossil-fuel use rising. Most of the renewables are not replacing fossils.”

The new studies offer more details. Even as American coal use plunged last year, new wind and solar farms replaced only one-sixth of the lost power. What filled in the rest of the breach were improvements to energy efficiency (which allow less electricity to be used overall) and—most important—natural gas.

  1. Cheap natural gas is reducing emissions in the United States and Europe—but not around the world.

The fracking boom in the United States has led to a surfeit of natural gas worldwide. Natural gas was the planet’s fastest-growing fossil fuel this year, generating about 7.7 billion tons of carbon pollution. Emissions from natural gas are also rising much faster than carbon emissions overall.

This effect has played out differently around the world. “In the United States, natural gas has offset most of the drop in coal,” Jackson said. This effect, in fact, drove most of the drop in American carbon pollution this year. And in Europe, too, cheap natural gas has shifted the market away from coal. For this reason, natural gas has been hailed as a “bridge” fuel, a way to cut coal emissions while preparing for a cleaner energy system.

But this is not what’s happening elsewhere. “In the rest of the world, though, most natural gas is providing new energy. It’s not displacing coal,” he said. “Global energy consumption is rising, and most of the additional natural gas is meeting additional energy demand.”

In India, natural gas rose about 2.5 percent this year, the study finds. In Japan, natural gas has replaced zero-carbon “nuclear capacity lost after the Fukushima accident,” the study in Environmental Research Letters finds. Japan is the world’s largest importer of liquified natural gas.

  1. The end of a brighter era

Talking with Jackson, I thought back to 2015 and 2016. In many ways, those years were the most hopeful moment for climate-change politics in recent memory. Almost every country had just signed the Paris Agreement, the first truly global climate pact. The United States had shrunk its annual carbon footprint by 13 percent in a little more than a decade, and the Obama administration had a plan to keep reducing it. China, the world’s biggest polluter, was investing billions in renewables.

And most important, it seemed like humanity’s carbon pollution had stabilized. For three years, from 2014 to 2016, the world’s carbon emissions from fossil fuels did not meaningfully increase.

That period has now definitively ended. The Paris Agreement’s future is in doubt; American carbon pollution actually surged last year; and China has slashed its subsidies for wind and solar power, dragging down global investment in renewables. Above all, the planet’s carbon pollution from fossil fuels has now increased for three years straight. The hope that we had somehow ended the 180-year acceleration in carbon pollution—without, frankly, doing much work—has now vanished.

For Jackson and his colleagues at the Global Carbon Project, the implication of that finding is clear: The world must focus again on carbon, the pollutant warming the climate and acidifying the ocean.

Although some climate policies have led to “rapid progress in the deployment of clean energy technologies, few policies are in place to phase out fossil-fuel technologies in parallel,” the team writes today in Nature Climate Change. Until there are penalties for emitting carbon, clean alternatives will just meet new energy demand. They are not currently displacing “fossil fuel use to any great extent,” and will not in the future.

Therefore, public policies must focus on shutting down coal plants and retiring gasoline-burning cars “well before they reach their productive end-of-life.” A carbon price would help reach that goal, as would stronger global commitments to cut carbon, they add in another paper, published in Environmental Research Letters.

Otherwise, they warn, the goals of the Paris Agreement—as well as “planetary health”—will be at profound risk. They released their effort as leaders and negotiators from around the world gather in Madrid to plan the next phrase of international climate diplomacy.