'Any growth is more than we can afford': Carbon dioxide pollution hits record high as planet warms

Key Points
  • Natural gas use is surging across the world and fossil fuel emissions are hitting records that are unsustainable for the planet.
  • A global decline in coal emissions in 2019 was offset by an increase in oil and natural gas emissions across the world.
  • "Any growth is more than we can afford right now," says Rob Jackson, an Earth systems scientist at Stanford University and director of the Global Carbon Project.
A traffic policeman wearing a face mask directs in heavy smog on in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province of China.
VCG | Getty Images

It's been yet another decade of lost opportunity to act on climate change.

The planet's average temperature has warmed over 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, and is on pace to heat up by 1.5 degrees more within 20 years. The 2015 Paris Agreement to keep global temperature increases under 2 degree C during this century is now seen as unattainable. And the world has already experienced a slew of climate disasters in recent years, including: rapid ice melt and fires in the Arctic; wildfire destruction in places like Indonesia, Australia, California and Brazil; massive bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef; and deadly hurricanes, heatwaves and droughts.

At the close of this decade, global carbon dioxide emissions are now projected to hit 37 billion tons in 2019. That sets another record for a third consecutive year and veers countries further off course from combating global warming.

One piece of promising news is that the emissions growth rate this year is slower than the prior two years, due in part to a shift to solar and other forms of renewable energy as a cheaper alternative.

Despite that slower growth, natural gas use is surging across the world and fossil fuel emissions are still hitting records that are unsustainable for the planet.

"Any growth is more than we can afford right now," said Rob Jackson, an Earth systems scientist at Stanford University and director of the Global Carbon Project. "What we need is for emissions to stabilize and drop."

The last decade has also brought more attention to climate change from media outlets, politicians and consumers, as global deadly and disastrous events occur more frequently and higher temperatures hit historical records. More people realize the direct impact that global warming has on their lives and on the next generation. And ongoing advancements in computing power has led to more sophisticated models forecasting future warming.

Here's a look at just how much emissions have risen, which countries are polluting the most and the surge in natural gas emissions that could lock in years of new fossil fuel as we enter a new decade.

CO2 pollution on the rise

To avoid the major consequences of climate change — like more severe flooding, heat waves and wildfires — global carbon dioxide emissions will need to decline every year and reach zero before the end of the century.

Seven of the 10 hottest years on record have taken place since 2010, and July 2019 was the hottest month in record history. The world is not on track to reach net zero emissions.

On the current trajectory, the atmosphere will warm up by 1.5 degrees C in about 20 years, which could trigger massive food shortages and destruction, according to a recent report from the U.N.'s scientific panel on climate change.

Since the U.N.'s first carbon emissions gap report was published in 2010, global emissions have risen 11%.

China, US responsible for majority of CO2 emissions

Several countries account for the largest share of carbon dioxide emissions. China emitted 28% last year, followed by the U.S. at 15%, the E.U. at 9% and India at 7%, according to data from the Global Carbon Project.

China's emissions are forecast to rise just over 2.5% this year as the country invests in more oil for automobiles and natural gas for heating and power in homes and businesses.

The U.S. is projected to cut emissions by 1.7% this year as investments in coal for electricity are on the decline. However, that drop will not make up for the country's 2.8% increase in 2018.

The Trump administration has rolled back several Obama-era environmental regulations on methane and carbon pollution. Trump has also begun to formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, where nearly 200 nations promised to curb planet-warming emissions.

The U.S. and E.U. curbed carbon dioxide emissions this year, and global emissions from coal declined by about 0.9% in 2019.

However, the use of oil and natural gas across the world continues to grow significantly. And major polluting sectors — including transportation, the U.S. economy's biggest source of greenhouse gases since 2017 — remain almost impossible to decarbonize, according to Jackson.

"Over the last decade, oil use continues to rise. Electric cars started to make a dent, but nationally consumers are still purchasing gasoline-powered vehicles," Jackson said.

"Air traffic is worse, and on the rise, and there's no electric alternative that," he said. "There's inertia built into the transportation sector, and it's hard for me to see that declining anytime soon."

As coal fades, natural gas surges

The global decline in coal emissions in 2019 was offset by an increase in oil and natural gas emissions across the world.

In July 2019 in Bangladesh, the Brahmaputra River rose 40-year highs, inundating vast areas.
REHMAN ASAD | AFP | Getty Images

Natural gas has become a major driver for fossil fuel emissions growth in the past few years, and energy companies plan to add more natural gas plants and pipelines in coming years. China, the U.S. and India are all projected to increase natural gas emissions, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Natural gas is a dominant source in the U.S. because of its low price and reliability after the hydraulic fracturing boom.

"Natural gas is surging, and most of the extra natural gas isn't offsetting coal. It's supplying new forms of energy for people, similarly to renewable energy that is supplementing fossil fuels and not replacing them," Jackson said.

U.S. energy consumption hit a record high in 2018 as demand for fuel and electricity continues to grow. Consumption of natural gas grew by 4% while consumption of coal declined by 4% from the previous year. Renewable energy production also hit a record high in 2018, an increase of 3% from the previous year, according to the EIA.

"Until we replace fossil fuels in every country, we're just treading water," Jackson said.

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