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'We are in trouble.' Global carbon emissions reached record high in 2018

Smokestacks and cooling towers emit smoke and water vapor at the RWE AG owned coal-fired power station Neurath near Bergheim, Germany. Bloomberg photo by Wolfgang von Brauchitsch

Global emissions of carbon dioxide have reached the highest levels on record, scientists projected Wednesday, in the latest evidence of the chasm between international goals for combating climate change and what countries are actually doing.

Between 2014 and 2016, emissions remained largely flat, leading to hopes that the world was beginning to turn a corner. Those hopes have been dashed. In 2017, global emissions grew 1.6 percent. The rise in 2018 is projected to be 2.7 percent.

The expected increase, which would bring fossil fuel and industrial emissions to a record high of 37.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, is being driven by nearly 5 percent emissions growth in China and more than 6 percent in India, researchers estimated, along with growth in many other nations throughout the world. Emissions by the United States grew 2.5 percent, while emissions by the European Union declined by just under 1 percent.

As nations are gathered for climate talks in Poland, the message of Wednesday's report was unambiguous: When it comes to promises to begin cutting the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change, the world remains well off target.

"We are in trouble. We are in deep trouble with climate change," United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said this week at the opening of the 24th annual U.N. climate conference, where countries will wrestle with the ambitious goals they need to meet to sharply reduce carbon emissions in coming years.

"It is hard to overstate the urgency of our situation," he added. "Even as we witness devastating climate impacts causing havoc across the world, we are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption."

Guterres was not commenting specifically on Wednesday's findings, which were released in a trio of scientific papers by researchers with the Global Carbon Project. But his words came amid a litany of grim news in the fall in which scientists have warned that the effects of climate change are no longer distant and hypothetical, and that the impacts of global warming will only intensify in the absence of aggressive international action.

In October, a top U.N.-backed scientific panel found that nations have barely a decade to take "unprecedented" actions and cut their emissions in half by 2030 to prevent the worst consequences of climate change. The panel's report found "no documented historic precedent" for the rapid changes to the infrastructure of society that would be needed to hold warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

The day after Thanksgiving, the Trump administration released a nearly 1,700-page report co-written by hundreds of scientists finding that climate change is already causing increasing damage to the United States. That was soon followed by another report detailing the growing gap between the commitments made at earlier U.N. conferences and what is needed to steer the planet off its calamitous path.

Coupled with Wednesday's findings, that drumbeat of daunting news has cast a considerable pall over the international climate talks in Poland, which began this week and are scheduled to run through Dec. 14.

Negotiators there face the difficult task of coming to terms with the gap between the promises they made in Paris in 2015 and what's needed to control dangerous levels of warming - a first step, it is hoped, toward more aggressive climate action beginning in 2020. Leaders at the conference also are trying to put in place a process for how countries measure and report their greenhouse gas emissions to the rest of the world in the years ahead.

But while most of the world remains firmly committed to the notion of tackling climate change, many countries are not on pace to meet their relatively modest Paris pledges. The Trump administration has continued to roll back environmental regulations and insist that it will exit the Paris agreement in 2020. Brazil, which has struggled to rein in deforestation, in the fall elected a leader in Jair Bolsonaro who has pledged to roll back protections for the Amazon.

The biggest emissions story in 2018, though, appears to be China, the world's single largest emitting country, which grew its output of planet-warming gases by nearly half a billion tons, researchers estimate. (The United States is the globe's second-largest emitter).

The country's sudden, significant increase in carbon emissions could be linked to a wider slowdown in the economy, environmental analysts said.

"Under pressure of the current economic downturn, some local governments might have loosened supervision on air pollution and carbon emissions," said Yang Fuqiang, an energy adviser to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S. environmental organization.

China's top planning agency said Wednesday that three areas - Liaoning in the northeast Rust Belt and the big coal-producing regions of Ningxia and Xinjiang in the northwest - had failed to meet their targets to curb energy consumption growth and improve efficiency last year.

But Yang said that these areas were not representative of the whole country, and that China was generally on the right track. "There is still a long way ahead in terms of pollution control and emissions reduction, but we expect to see more ambitions in central government's plans and actions," he said.

Such changes - in all large-emitting nations - have to happen fast.

Scientists have said that annual carbon dioxide emissions need to plunge almost by half by the year 2030 if the world wants to hit the most stringent - and safest - climate change target. That would be either keeping the Earth's warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius - when it is already at 1 degrees - or only briefly "overshooting" that temperature.

But emissions are far too high to limit warming to such an extent. And instead of falling dramatically, they're still rising.

Wednesday's research makes clear the intimidating math behind the fundamental shift that scientists say is required. While some nations continue to grow their emissions and some are shrinking them, overall there are still more additions than subtractions.

"We're not seeing declines in wealthy countries that outpace the increases in other parts of the world," said Rob Jackson, a researcher at Stanford University who contributed to the research as part of the Global Carbon Project.

The problem of cutting emissions is that it leads to difficult choices in the real world. A growing global economy inevitably stokes more energy demand. And different countries are growing their emissions - or failing to shrink them - for different reasons.

"India is providing electricity and energy to hundreds of millions of people who don't have it yet," said Jackson. "That's very different than in China, where they are ramping up coal use again in part because their economic growth has been slowing. They're greenlighting coal based projects that have been on hold."

The continuing growth in global emissions is happening, researchers noted, even though renewable energy sources are growing. It's just that they're still far too small as energy sources.

"Solar and wind are doing great, they're going quite well," said Glen Peters, director of the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo and another of the Global Carbon Project authors. "But in China and India, the solar and wind are just filling new demand. You could say if you didn't have solar or wind, emissions could be higher. But solar and wind are nowhere near big enough yet to replace fossil fuels."

The figures the researchers provided are an estimate based on available energy and cement industry data through the first nine months of the year, and projections based on economic trends and the amount of carbon different countries are believed to be emitting to use energy. The estimated growth could change a bit, Jackson said -- it's possible the final number could be between an increase of 1.8 percent and 3.7 percent. But either way, there's little doubt that 2018 hit a new record high for global emissions.

In the United States, emissions in 2018 are projected to have risen 2.5 percent, driven in part by a very warm summer that led to high air conditioning use and a very cold winter in the Northeast, but also by a continued use of oil driven by low gas prices and bigger cars. U.S. emissions had been on a downturn, as coal plants are replaced by natural gas plants and renewable energy, but that momentum ground to a halt this year, at least temporarily. In Europe, cars also have been a major driver of slower-than-expected emissions reductions.

As for China, coal accounts for about 60 percent of China's total energy consumption, but the government hopes to bring it down to 10 percent by 2050.

Thanks to increased investment in green energy, China's carbon intensity, or the amount of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP, declined by 46 percent by 2017 from 2005 levels, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment reported earlier this week. It had expected it would take until 2020 to reach the targeted 40-45 percent reduction.

"With these goals met, a very solid foundation has been laid for meeting the target of halting the increase of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, and even accomplishing that sooner than planned," Xie Zhenhua, China's special representative for climate change affairs, told the state-owned news agency Xinhua ahead of the meeting in Poland.

China will remain steadfast and active in addressing climate change and implementing the Paris agreement, Xie said.

But officials and analysts alike point out that the United States is not doing its part to combat global warming. "We would also love to see the United States embrace its responsibilities by returning to the Paris climate deal," said Yang of the NRDC.

Despite the overwhelming challenges, Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, still holds high hopes for the talks in Poland.

"I'm an optimist because of human nature," Espinosa said in an interview. She suspects the spate of ominous climate news might have spurred a sort of tipping point, where societies begin demanding aggressive actions from their leaders to stave off the most disastrous effects of climate change.

"I think we have kind of reached the limit," she said. "When we are facing the limit, I think we need to come up with something more creative, more ambitious, stronger and bolder."

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This article was written by Brady Dennis and Chris Mooney, reporters for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Lyric Li contributed to this story from Beijing.