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Are climate change emissions finally going down? Definitely not

Workers in Germany construct a new pipeline for transporting natural gas imports from a nearby liquified natural gas facility. European countries are seeking new sources of natural gas, as they wean themselves off imports from Russia.
David Hecker
Getty Images
Workers in Germany construct a new pipeline for transporting natural gas imports from a nearby liquified natural gas facility. European countries are seeking new sources of natural gas, as they wean themselves off imports from Russia.

The world is still on track for dangerous levels of warming, according to a new report from the Global Carbon Project. Emissions from burning fossil fuels are expected to reach record levels this year, more than 50% higher than they were when the Industrial Revolution began.

The new data comes out as world leaders gather at the COP27 summit in Egypt. Negotiations are underway to rein in warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.8 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. Beyond that level, the world could see much more destructive storms and flooding, heat waves and drought.

"We're dangerously close to 1.5 Celsius thresholds," says Rob Jackson, climate scientist at Stanford University who worked on the report, which was compiled by scientists around the globe.

If emissions continue at the current rate, just nine years are left before exceeding 1.5 degrees becomes likely.

Emissions are bouncing back after the pandemic

Emissions fell by about 5% in 2020 as the pandemic grounded flights and slowed industrial activity. But the following year, emissions from burning fossil fuels bounced back by the same amount and are expected to grow by 1% this year.

"That may not sound like much, but that's about as much emissions as an extra 100 million American cars a year," Jackson says.

In order to hit zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 and avoid extreme global warming, emissions would need to fall every year by roughly the same amount they fell during the pandemic. The growth of solar and wind power, now cheaper than fossil fuel projects in most cases, is helping to slow the pace of heat-trapping emissions.

"Renewables are still the bright spot," Jackson says. "They've come through Covid swimmingly. There are some bright spots in electric vehicles."

The rate that fossil fuels are growing has slowed recently. In the 2000s, it was increasing by about 3% per year. Over the past decade, fossil fuels have grown by only .5% per year.

War in Ukraine threatens to boost fossil fuels globally

With the war in Ukraine, many countries have been scrambling to replace natural gas exports coming from Russia. Exporting natural gas overseas requires super-cooling it down into liquified natural gas, so it can be loaded on ships. Once the ships arrive at their destination, the gas has to be unloaded at special facilities, known as LNG terminals. According to a new report from Climate Action Tracker, a climate think tank, 26 new terminals have been announced in the European Union since the invasion of Ukraine.

Boosting natural gas could lock in fossil fuel use for decades to come. If the proposed terminals and those under construction now worldwide come online, they could more than double the emissions from liquified natural gas by 2030, according to the report. That could jeopardize any commitments that governments make in the COP27 negotiations. To reach the world's goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the International Energy Agency says there should be no investment in new fossil fuel supplies.

Emissions inch up in the U.S., fall in China — but it won't last

In the U.S., emissions are projected to rise this year by 1.5%. Coal power continues its decline, largely because of cheaper natural gas and renewable energy. But oil use is rising, as air traffic continues to rebound after the pandemic. Historically, the U.S. is the largest cumulative emitter of greenhouse gases, when all the emissions since the Industrial Revolution are taken into account.

Emissions are expected to drop by about 1% in the world's largest current emitter, China. The continued pandemic lockdowns have suppressed economic activity there, but the largest decrease comes from a building and development slowdown, since cement is a potent source of greenhouse gases.

With the war in Ukraine and inflation, Jackson says it's tough to say how emissions will keep rebounding. But all indications are that the world has not turned the corner to reducing emissions from fossil fuels.

"It's a chaotic mess of a global economy and we really don't yet know how emissions will settle out post-Covid because we haven't had a normal year yet," he says.

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Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.