Natural gas, which fossil fuel companies market as a clean bridge fuel to renewables, is the fastest growing energy source. Renewable energy is on the rise, too, and the U.S. and Europe are using less coal. But according to new research, the world’s carbon emissions will still reach an all time high this year.
The Global Carbon Project’s estimate of 2019’s carbon emissions were published on Tuesday in Environmental Research Letters, Nature Climate Change, and Earth System Science Data. It shows that carbon emissions from fossil fuels have increased for the third year in a row.
The good news (if you can even call it that) is that the rate of growth is slowing. Last year emissions rose 2.1 percent, but this year it was 0.6 percent. But that shouldn’t exactly be cause to celebrate. Atmospheric carbon levels are still toppling record highs, and the researchers expect we’ll hit an average of 410 parts per million this year. Sounds bad if you’re interested in surviving.
There have been changes in the global energy system, sure. Coal, for instance, is on the decline, especially in Europe and the U.S. Overall carbon emissions from coal declined by about 0.9 percent this year, which sounds great, because it’s the most polluting fossil fuel in terms of carbon. The problem is that decline was outweighed by a rise in emissions from the expansion of oil and, even more so, natural gas.
“Because of greater supply and cheaper prices, natural gas usage has surged, with an attendant 2.6 percent increase in carbon dioxide emissions for 2019,” Rob Jackson, a Stanford University professor who led the research, said in a statement. “In fact, rising natural gas use accounts for 60 percent of fossil emissions growth in recent years.”
And the report doesn’t account for the methane, a greenhouse gas that’s about 120 times more potent than carbon dioxide, that natural gas processing and transportation leaks into the atmosphere.
The report shows that in most cases, gas isn’t supplanting coal but rather being added to the mix due to rising demand. That has offset the decline in coal carbon emissions and is a big cause of the global rise.
Renewables are seeing a similar pattern where growth isn’t cutting into overall emissions because they’re being used to provide more power overall rather than replacing fossil-based energy. In the U.S. for instance, as coal declined, the increase of solar and wind energy only replaced one sixth of the coal power lost.
The news could have been worse. A slowed rate of growth is still better than an increased one, and less coal is good—although it’s not being replaced in a sustainable way.
“Short-term I’m deeply frustrated by our lack of progress on global carbon emissions,” said Jackson in an email to Earther. “We’ve thrown away decades through inaction. Longer-term, I remain optimistic that green energy will ultimately provide the world’s energy.”
The report was released on the third day of the UN’s international climate talks, for which civic leaders from 200 countries have gathered in Madrid. Jackson says he’d advise them to stop investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure, unless they’ve also seriously invested in technology to capture the carbon they produce.
“They should also promote public transport, safe biking, and electric cars coupled to renewable electricity,” he said. “They should acknowledge the millions of lives each year that will be saved from cleaner air through green energy.”
He had some advice for those of us that aren’t policymakers, too: “Vote climate and the environment as your #1 priority!”