Carbon Dioxide Emissions Increased in 2022 as Crises Roiled Energy Markets

Source: By Brad Plumer, New York Times • Posted: Sunday, November 13, 2022

Global emissions from fossil fuels are likely to reach record highs this year, new data shows, putting nations further off track from stopping global warming.

A dump truck at a coal mine in idea against a backdrop of mountains.
A coal mine in Uttar Pradesh, India, which accounts for 8 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. China is responsible for 32 percent, the United States 14 percent and the European Union 8 percent.Ritesh Shukla/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Global fossil fuel emissions will most likely reach record highs in 2022 and do not yet show signs of declining, researchers said Thursday, a trend that puts countries further away from their goal of stopping global warming.

This year, nations are projected to emit roughly 36.6 billion tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide by burning coal, natural gas and oil for energy, according to new data from the Global Carbon Project. That’s 1 percent more than the world emitted in 2021 and slightly more than the previous record in 2019, which came before the coronavirus pandemic caused a temporary drop in global energy use and emissions.

The findings were released at the United Nations climate change summit in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, where world leaders have gathered to discuss how to avert catastrophic levels of warming. Scientists have warned that the world as a whole will need to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by around midcentury in order to stabilize global temperatures and minimize the risks from deadly heat waves, sea-level rise and ecosystem collapse.

That deadline is getting harder to hit, experts said, with each passing year.

“Every year that emissions go up makes it that much more challenging to bring them back down again by a certain date,” said Glen Peters, a research director at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, who is one of more than 100 scientists involved in the research.

Relatively few countries account for the majority of the world’s fossil fuel emissions, with China responsible for 32 percent, the United States 14 percent, the European Union 8 percent and India 8 percent.

This year saw some unusual energy trends as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the lingering aftershocks of the pandemic rippled through the global economy.

China’s emissions are projected to decline by roughly 0.9 percent this year, its first drop since 2016, as frequent coronavirus lockdowns and a slowdown in property development led to dips in fossil fuel and cement use. Rapid growth of wind and solar power also helped keep China’s once-insatiable demand for coal roughly flat in 2022.

In Europe, emissions are also expected to drop by about 0.8 percent this year, largely driven by a steep fall in natural gas consumption after Russia cut off supplies. That was only partly offset by a rise in coal use, as countries like Germany and Austria restarted long-dormant coal-fired power plants to ease their energy shortfalls.

By contrast, in the United States, emissions are projected to rise around 1.5 percent this year, driven by a surge in natural gas use as the economy picked up. Emissions from oil are also up as air travel recovers from pandemic lows.

In India, fossil fuel emissions are expected to increase by nearly 6 percent, the largest single driver of the growth in carbon dioxide globally. India recently surpassed the European Union as the world’s third-largest emitter, although its per person emissions are just one-third those of Europe.

In the rest of the world, fossil fuel emissions increased by roughly 1.7 percent this year. Emissions from coal are likely to hit record highs, in part because many countries are shifting over to the highly polluting fuel in response to soaring natural gas prices.

One big question is whether fossil fuel emissions will continue to increase in the years ahead.

A recent report by the International Energy Agency, a leading forecaster, predicted that global fossil fuel demand was likely to peak and then level off sometime this decade. One major reason is that many governments have responded to the war in Ukraine by enacting stronger policies to shift away from oil, gas and coal. In the United States, for instance, Congress approved $370 billion in spending for wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear power plants, hydrogen fuels, electric vehicles and electric heat pumps.

The agency also calculated that this year’s rise in fossil fuel emissions would have been three times as large had it not been for a rapid deployment of wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles worldwide.

“Our numbers show that the current crisis could well be a turning point in the history of energy,” said Fatih Birol, the agency’s executive director, in a recent interview.

The emissions data released Thursday contains some glimmers of good news. The yearly amount of carbon dioxide released by deforestation and changes in land use appears to have declined over the past two decades, to around 3.9 billion tons in 2022. Once that is included, humanity’s total carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and land use have stayed roughly flat since 2015.

Part of the story, researchers said, is that forests appear to be expanding or recovering in many regions, such as on abandoned farmland in Europe. As those trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That has helped offset a fraction of the emissions produced by deforestation, which remains stubbornly high in places like Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Still, there are large uncertainties around land use emissions, and it is too early to say whether this trend is robust, said Julia Pongratz, a geographer at the University of Munich, who worked on the report. While it’s relatively straightforward to count up how much oil, gas and coal countries are burning, it’s much harder to estimate how much carbon dioxide is actually released when farmers clear away rainforests or set fire to peat lands.

Under the Paris agreement in 2015, world leaders agreed to limit total global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), compared with preindustrial levels, and to make a strong effort to hold warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The world has already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius, and scientists warn that with every additional fraction of a degree, tens of millions more people worldwide would be exposed to life-threatening heat waves, food and water scarcity.

The new data shows that time is running out to reach those targets. If emissions were to merely stay flat at 2022 levels, the researchers found, the world would likely put enough carbon into the atmosphere to exceed the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold within nine years, and exceed the 2-degree Celsius threshold within 30 years.

“On our current course, without massive cuts in emissions, we’re going to exhaust our remaining carbon budget very, very quickly,” said Pierre Friedlingstein, a climate scientist at the University of Exeter, who helped led the research.