Worldwide carbon emissions are projected to rise by around 2% in 2017, according to the latest figures from the Global Carbon Project.
The increase, which was announced as nations met in Germany for the annual UN climate negotiations (COP23), comes after three years of relative stability.
“This is very disappointing,” said Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia. “With global carbon dioxide emissions from all human activities estimated at 41 billion tonnes for 2017, time is running out on our ability to keep warming well below 2C, let along 1.5C.”
She warned that rising temperatures could amplify the impacts of hurricanes and create more powerful storms. “This is a window to the future,” she said. “We need to reach a peak in global emissions in the next few years and drive emissions down rapidly afterwards to address climate change and limit its impacts.”
The recent rise is thought to be largely due to an increase in coal being burnt as fuel in China, as a result of stronger industrial growth and lower hydro-power generation caused by low rainfall in the country, which accounts for 28% of global emissions.
Robert Jackson, a co-author of the report and an Earth scientist at Stanford University in California, predicts a further rise in emissions in 2018. “That’s a real concern,” he said. “The global economy is picking up slowly. As GDP rises, we produce more goods, which by design produces more emissions.”
Nick Molden, founder and CEO of Emissions Analytics, says the true figures could be even worse than the report suggests. Official figures for vehicle emissions have been showing a decline in CO2 that has not reflected real-world performance, he told Professional Engineering. “If that’s baked into these figures they could underestimate the extent of the problem.”
The discrepancy is because official emissions test figures quoted by vehicle manufacturers can differ from the actual amounts by 40% on average. Molden also pointed out that, although there are a growing number of electric vehicles, if they’re powered by coal-fired power stations they could still account for significant emissions.
Amy Luers, executive director at research organisation Future Earth, called the news “a step back for humankind”. “We must reverse this trend and start to accelerate toward a safe and prosperous world for all.”
Others are more optimistic, pointing to a 14% per year rise in use of renewable sources of energy over the past five years. “Prices for wind and solar power are plummeting, and batteries and storage are helping to balance supply and demand for electricity,” said Jackson. “The world’s energy future is changing before our eyes.”