Environmental Laboratory

Is the Carbon Plateau Over?

Dec 07 2017 Comments 0

Over the past three years, carbon emissions across the world had largely stalled, fuelling hopes that peak emissions had been reached and that we may have some chance of avoiding a global temperature hike of 2°C as agreed upon at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015.

However, new research led by the Global Carbon Project reveals that emissions are set to jump up again in 2017, reaching a new record high and making it almost impossible to achieve the goals laid out at COP21. If the Earth’s temperature does rise by the projected 2°C, it could have catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humans, plants and animals all over the world.

Back on the increase

Previous research conducted by the Global Carbon Project had found that carbon emissions had reached a plateau between 2014 and 2016, though leading scientists had warned at the time that it was too early to tell whether they had peaked once and for all.

The new study confirms those fears, with CO2 emissions projected to rise by 2% in 2017, reaching a record high 41 gigatonnes. Again, the chief author of the report would not be drawn on whether this upward trend would continue beyond the coming year. “We can’t say what trajectory is going to be realised,” explains Corinne Le Quéré, director of Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in East Anglia.

However, Le Quéré was clear that something must be done now to avoid temperature increases surpassing the 2°C threshold; continue as we are, and we could even reach a hike of 3°C. That would be disastrous for the world’s fragile biosphere.

Oil and gas still going strong

While more stringent monitoring measures and a changing public opinion towards coal may indicate that this fossil fuel is on its way out, oil and gas are still growing at an alarming rate. Fossil fuels still account for the vast majority of emissions (37 gigatonnes this year, or 90% of the total emissions), while land clearing of forested areas (to make way for palm oil plantations and the suchlike) account for the rest.

Of course, the data from the Global Carbon Project doesn’t even consider other harmful greenhouse gases (GHGs). The methane emissions from agriculture and dairy farming, for example, are arguably more damaging than CO2, since although they persist in the atmosphere for less than time than carbon, they can trap up to 100 times more heat.

More effective measures needed

Critics claim that the biggest stumbling block to bringing down emissions at the moment is the absence of a clear, coherent policy from governments all over the world. The technology does exist to change our polluting ways; the impetus to do so is sadly lacking.

Although the EU does have a carbon trading scheme (which underwent significant changes earlier this year), it has come under heavy criticism for the unpredictability and low value of the price it engenders. This, speculators have said, does not encourage businesses to prioritise curbing their emissions.

In any case, action will be needed imminently if we are to avoid catastrophic consequences for the planet. “Once we get above about 2°C of warming relative to the pre-industrial – and we’re not that far away from it now – we see some of the worst and potentially irreversible changes in climate,” explains Michael Mann, a Penn State climatologist. “And they’re not just incremental. They’re not just a nuisance. We are talking about a fundamental threat to our way of life.”

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