A little good news about climate change for once

Nineteen countries have seen a decade of economic growth and lower CO2 emissions

NEW YORK • Climate scientists have some good news, for a change. Global economies are growing at a much faster rate than their greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Global Carbon Project, an international scientific collaboration.

Nineteen countries, including the US and the UK, have seen a decade of economic growth and lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Renewable power capacity is at a record high and coal-burning might have peaked.

The project’s analysis of 2018 energy use and emissions, published yesterday, caps a busy run for climate scientists ahead of the annual United Nations (UN) climate negotiations in Poland this week. Each new report attests to a very present danger to life, livelihood and property around the world.

Here are the highlights and lowlights:

Getting Warmer

The bad news, inevitably, from the Global Carbon Project is that emissions are projected to rise 2.7% in 2018, to 37.1 billion metric tonnes of CO2. That’s more than a full point higher than 2017, a year that saw 1.6% growth.

The previous three years had seen no emissions growth, prompting speculation that global levels may have been stabilising.

This year is also shaping up to be the fourth warmest on record, behind 2015, 2016 and 2017, according to preliminary World Meteorological Organisation data released at the end of November. Naturally varying temperatures account for annual differences, but the bumpiness smooths out over time into a clear trend: Twenty of the hottest years since the 1880s have occurred in the last 22.

The 2° Challenge

In Paris in 2015, negotiators from nearly 200 countries agreed on temperature targets of “well below 2°C”, with an eye on 1.5°C, according to the accord.

A one-off special report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explained the difference: To hit the 2°C target, emissions would have to fall by 25% by 2030 and to zero by 2070. The more ambitious goal would require emissions to drop by 45% by 2030 and to zero by 2050.

America Unchecked

The fourth US National Climate Assessment released the day after Thanksgiving found that, if left unchecked by policy and market transformation, American communities, infrastructure and overall economic growth will come under increasing strain.

By 2090, climate effects will have shaved off several points from the GDP, with at least US$100 billion (RM417 billion) to US$200 billion in additional annual climate-related costs.

The chart below estimating climate damage as a percentage of GDP, which drew some media and political scrutiny, is based on this 2017 study in the journal Science. (The underlying study received some funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, a charitable organisation founded by Michael R Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.)

Better News

The second US State of the Carbon Cycle Report includes a somewhat brightening snapshot of what’s happened to North American emissions in the last decade: The US’ overall annual emissions rates are down in the last 10 years, owing mostly to vastly expanded natural gas resources, renewable power growth and energy efficiency. Nothing’s guaranteed — the new Global Carbon Project analysis sees US emissions rise 2.5% in 2018.

Health Risks

A recent Lancet review found more research and funding for climate-based health risks. It also reported that 150 million more people are vulnerable to heatwaves than were in 2000, and rising temperatures caused the productivity of outdoor labour to drop more than 5% from 2000 to 2016. (India alone made up nearly half of the 153 billion hours of work lost to heat in 2017.)

“The effects also threaten to undermine many of the social, economic and environmental drivers of health that have contributed greatly to human progress,” the authors write.

The Odds

The Global Carbon Project gives the world 20 years at current pollution rates before the 1.5°C goal is eclipsed. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) found this month that wind and solar energy would need to be built at twice their current projected rate to produce 85% of needed power by 2050, according to a study of three regions, California, Germany and north-central China. It’s possible to avoid the worst, BNEF concludes, it’s just going to be expensive.

“To keep global warming within 2°C, power systems around the world need to decarbonise rapidly over the next 30 years,” BNEF analysts write. To hit the target, investment would need to approximately double. — Bloomberg