Global CO2 Emissions Hit Record High in 2018, as Greenland Ice Melt Goes Into 'Overdrive'

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In the U.S., recent cuts in CO2 emissions are being offset by a rise in oil consumption by vehicles. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Global carbon dioxide emissions in 2018 are soaring to the highest level on record, according to a new report from the Global Carbon Project, published this week in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters. As time runs out for preventing the worst effects of climate change, this suggests humanity is not only moving too slowly in curbing CO2 emissions — we're moving backward.

After global CO2 emissions stabilized between 2014 and 2016, many people hoped it was a sign that emissions of the heat-trapping gas had finally peaked. They rose again in 2017, although still remained 3 percent below the record high set in 2013. But now, according to scientists with the Global Carbon Project, global CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels are projected to rise by 2.7 percent in 2018, which would bring the year's worldwide total to a new record high of 37.1 billion metric tons.

"We thought, perhaps hoped, emissions had peaked a few years ago," lead author and Stanford University scientist Rob Jackson says in a statement about the new study. "After two years of renewed growth, that was wishful thinking."

The projections were released amid annual U.N. climate talks in Katowice, Poland, where international negotiators have gathered to map out plans for implementing the Paris Agreement. Under that 2015 accord, which has been signed by 195 countries, nations pledge to cut CO2 emissions and keep global warming "well below" a rise of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial temperatures.

The new report does not bode well for that effort, citing growth in overall energy demand that's outpacing recent gains in renewable energy and energy efficiency. "The clock is ticking in our struggle to keep warming below 2 degrees," Jackson says.

Coal comfort

coal-fired power plant in Poland
Emissions waft up from a coal-fired power plant in Opole, Poland. (Photo: Andrea Nicotta/Shutterstock)

China is the No. 1 country for CO2 emissions, producing more than a quarter of the global total per year, followed by the U.S., India and Russia. China's emissions are projected to rise by nearly 5 percent in 2018, although many other countries are also contributing to the increase. U.S. emissions are forecast to rise by 2.5 percent, for example, while India is expected to see a 6 percent jump.

In the U.S., this increase follows a decade of falling CO2 emissions, a trend that has been attributed largely to the decline of one particularly carbon-intensive fossil fuel. Coal consumption in the U.S. and Canada is down 40 percent since 2005, the study's authors note, and in 2018 alone, the U.S. is expected to further reduce its reliance on coal-fired power plants by a record-setting 15 gigawatts. This is due partly to demands for cleaner air, since coal emissions also contain toxins that directly harm human health, and partly to market forces that increasingly push the U.S. and other countries toward lower-carbon options like natural gas, wind and solar power.

Yet despite this shift from coal, U.S. oil consumption is projected to rise by more than 1 percent in 2018, mainly due to extreme temperatures and low gasoline prices. Thanks to a cold winter in the Eastern U.S., plus a hot summer across much of the country, Americans have used more energy for heating and cooling in 2018, the report explains. On top of that, low gasoline prices have encouraged more driving.

And aside from more oil demand, the U.S. and many other countries are embracing natural gas along with renewable energy, limiting the payoff from our coal detox. Natural gas may contain less carbon than coal, but it's still a fossil fuel, and its popularity means the world is still investing in climate-altering fuels at the expense of renewables. "It isn't enough for renewables to grow," Jackson says. "They need to displace fossil fuels. So far, that's happening for coal but not for oil or natural gas."

'A terrible disaster for humanity'

Icebergs drift through Disko Bay in Ilulissat, West Greenland.
Icebergs drift through Disko Bay in Ilulissat, West Greenland. (Photo: Michele B/Shutterstock)

This is manifesting in lots of different ways, including many that affect people directly. But it's also manifesting in ways that, while they may be less directly and obviously dangerous to humanity, pose an insidiously grave threat to modern life.

Climate change is causing a dramatic meltdown of the Arctic, for example, from sea ice to the vast Greenland ice sheet. And on the same day the Global Carbon Project published its CO2 projections, another group of researchers reported that the modern melting of the Greenland ice sheet is unlike anything in recent history.

"Melting of the Greenland ice sheet has gone into overdrive," lead author Luke Trusel, a glaciologist at Rowan University, tells USA Today. "Greenland melt is adding to sea level more than any time during the last three and a half centuries, if not thousands of years."

Trusel and his colleagues spent five weeks on the ice sheet, drilling deep into the ancient ice to reveal its melt rate over time. They found gradual melting began in the late 1800s, likely due to intensive coal-burning, and has sped up in recent decades as temperatures rise more quickly. "From a historical perspective, today's melt rates are off the charts, and this study provides the evidence to prove this," says co-author Sarah Das, a glaciologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

This may sound like a local issue for Greenland, but the island's ice flows into the ocean when it melts — and Greenland holds enough ice to raise global sea levels by roughly 23 feet (7 meters). That isn't expected to happen anytime soon, but much less sea-level rise could still be catastrophic. Sea level is now rising by about 3.2 millimeters (0.13 inches) per year, according to NASA, with even conservative estimates predicting about half a meter (1.5 feet) of sea-level rise by 2100. As Aberystwyth University glaciologist Alun Hubbard tells Deutsche Welle, that would be "a terrible disaster for humanity — especially coastal regions of the planet."

And, as the authors of the new study point out, the melt rate of Greenland's ice sheet is not only speeding up, but it's speeding up even more quickly than the warming itself. "We find that for every degree of warming, melting increases more and more — it outpaces the warming," Trusel tells Mashable.

'Don't step on the gas'

traffic jam in Bangkok, Thailand, at night
A traffic jam snakes through Bangkok in November 2018. (Photo: Peng Ch/Shutterstock)

This year's CO2 surge "marks a return to an old pattern," according to the Global Carbon Project, "in which economies and emissions rise more or less in sync." Energy demand is now rising in much of the world, along with many national economies, and CO2 emissions are, too. Yet that pattern isn't just old, argues co-author Corinne Le Quéré, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia — it's outdated.

In a statement about the new projections, Le Quéré points to the years from 2014 to 2016, when CO2 emissions were relatively stable even as the global gross domestic product grew. This was largely due to reduced coal use in the U.S. and China, along with improvements in energy efficiency and growth of renewable energy around the world. This demonstrates that emissions have been decoupled from economic growth before, Le Quéré argues, and so they could be again. "We can have economic growth with fewer emissions," she says. "There's no question about that."

Despite the dire outlook for CO2 emissions, and the high stakes of modern climate change, the situation is not hopeless. The clock is certainly ticking, as Jackson says, but that means time hasn't run out yet. Rather than inspiring despair, the point of reports like these is to snap us out of our stupor before things get even worse.

"If you're driving on a highway and the car in front of you stops short, and you slam on brakes and realize that you're going to hit the guy no matter what, that's not the time to take your foot off the brake," John Sterman, a professor of business management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tells the Washington Post in an analogy about climate change. "And you certainly don't step on the gas."