Fossil fuel emissions hit record high after unexpected growth: Global Carbon Budget 2017

Pep Canadell, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Robbie Andrew, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Rob Jackson, Stanford University, and Vanessa Haverd, CSIRO

Global greenhouse emissions from fossil fuels and industry are on track to grow by 2% in 2017, reaching a new record high of 37 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to the 2017 Global Carbon Budget, released today.

The rise follows a remarkable three-year period during which global CO₂ emissions barely grew, despite strong global economic growth.

But this year’s figures suggest that the keenly anticipated global peak in emissions – after which greenhouse emissions would ultimately begin to decline – has yet to arrive.

Read more: Fossil fuel emissions have stalled: Global Carbon Budget 2016

The Global Carbon Budget, now in its 12th year, brings together scientists and climate data from around the world to develop the most complete picture available of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In a series of three papers, the Global Carbon Project’s 2017 report card assesses changes in Earth’s sources and sinks of CO₂, both natural and human-induced. All excess CO₂ remaining in the atmosphere leads to global warming.

We believe society is unlikely to return to the high emissions growth rates of recent decades, given continued improvements in energy efficiency and rapid growth in low-carbon energies. Nevertheless, our results are a reminder that there is no room for complacency if we are to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, which calls for temperatures to be stabilised at “well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels”. This requires net zero global emissions soon after 2050.

After a brief plateau, 2017’s emissions are forecast to hit a new high.
Global Carbon Project, Author provided

National trends

The most significant factor in the resumption of global emissions growth is the projected 3.5% increase in China’s emissions. This is the result of higher energy demand, particularly from the industrial sector, along with a decline in hydro power use because of below-average rainfall. China’s coal consumption grew by 3%, while oil (5%) and gas (12%) continued rising. The 2017 growth may result from economic stimulus from the Chinese government, and may not continue in the years ahead.

The United States and Europe, the second and third top emitters, continued their decade-long decline in emissions, but at a reduced pace in 2017.

For the US, the slowdown comes from a decline in the use of natural gas because of higher prices, with the loss of its market share taken by renewables and to a lesser extent coal. Importantly, 2017 will be the first time in five years that US coal consumption is projected to rise slightly (by about 0.5%).

The EU has now had three years (including 2017) with little or no decline in emissions, as declines in coal consumption have been offset by growth in oil and gas.

Unexpectedly, India’s CO₂ emissions will grow only about 2% this year, compared with an average 6% per year over the past decade. This reduced growth rate is likely to be short-lived, as it was linked to reduced exports, lower consumer demand, and a temporary fall in currency circulation attributable to demonetisation late in 2016.

Trends for the biggest emitters, and everyone else.
Global Carbon Project, Author provided

Yet despite this year’s uptick, economies are now decarbonising with a momentum that was difficult to imagine just a decade ago. There are now 22 countries, for example, for which CO₂ emissions have declined over the past decade while their economies have continued to grow.

Concerns have been raised in the past about countries simply moving their emissions outside their borders. But since 2007, the total emissions outsourced by countries with emissions targets under the Kyoto Protocol (that is, developed countries, including the US) has declined.

This suggests that the downward trends in emissions of the past decade are driven by real changes to economies and energy systems, and not just to offshoring emissions.

Other countries, such as Russia, Mexico, Japan, and Australia have shown more recent signs of slowdowns, flat growth, and somewhat volatile emissions trajectories as they pursue a range of different climate and energy policies in recent years.

Still, the pressure is on. In 101 countries, representing 50% of global CO₂ emissions, emissions increased as economies grew. Many of these countries will be pursuing economic development for years to come.

Contrasting fortunes among some of the world’s biggest economies.
Nigel Hawtin/Future Earth Media Lab/Global Carbon Project, Author provided

A peek into the future

During the three-year emissions “plateau” – and specifically in 2015-16 – the accumulation of CO₂ in the atmosphere grew at a record high that had not previously been observed in the half-century for which measurements exist.

It is well known that during El Niño years such as 2015-16, when global temperatures are higher, the capacity of terrestrial ecosystems to take up CO₂ (the “land sink”) diminishes, and atmospheric CO₂ growth increases as a result.

The El Niño boosted temperatures by roughly a further 0.2℃. Combined with record high levels of fossil fuel emissions, the atmospheric CO₂ concentration grew at a record rate of nearly 3 parts per million per year.

This event illustrates the sensitivity of natural systems to global warming. Although a hot El Niño might not be the same as a sustained warmer climate, it nevertheless serves as a warning of the global warming in store, and underscores the importance of continuing to monitor changes in the Earth system.

The effect of the strong 2015-16 El Niño on the growth of atmospheric CO₂ can clearly be seen.
Nigel Hawtin/Future Earth Media Lab/Global Carbon Project, based on Peters et al., Nature Climate Change 2017, Author provided

No room for complacency

There is no doubt that progress has been made in decoupling economic activity from CO₂ emissions. A number of central and northern European countries and the US have shown how it is indeed possible to grow an economy while reducing emissions.

Other positive signs from our analysis include the 14% per year growth of global renewable energy (largely solar and wind) – albeit from a low base – and the fact that global coal consumption is still below its 2014 peak.

Read more: World greenhouse gas levels made unprecedented leap in 2016

These trends, and the resolute commitment of many countries to make the Paris Agreement a success, suggest that CO₂ emissions may not return to the high-growth rates experienced in the 2000s. However, an actual decline in global emissions might still be beyond our immediate reach, especially given projections for stronger economic growth in 2018.

The ConversationTo stabilise our climate at well below 2℃ of global warming, the elusive peak in global emissions needs to be reached as soon as possible, before quickly setting into motion the great decline in emissions needed to reach zero net emissions by around 2050.

Pep Canadell, CSIRO Scientist, and Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, Professor, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia; Glen Peters, Research Director, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Robbie Andrew, Senior Researcher, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Rob Jackson, Chair, Department of Earth System Science, and Chair of the Global Carbon Project,, Stanford University, and Vanessa Haverd, Senior research scientist, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Antarctic ice reveals that fossil fuel extraction leaks more methane than thought

File 20170823 13299 1u60k1n
The analysis of large amounts of ice from Antarctica’s Taylor Valley has helped scientists to tease apart the natural and human-made sources of the potent greenhouse gas methane.
Hinrich Schaefer, CC BY-ND

Hinrich Schaefer, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric

The fossil fuel industry is a larger contributor to atmospheric methane levels than previously thought, according to our research which shows that natural seepage of this potent greenhouse gas from oil and gas reservoirs is more modest than had been assumed.

In our research, published in Nature today, our international team studied Antarctic ice dating back to the last time the planet warmed rapidly, roughly 11,000 years ago.

Katja Riedel and Hinrich Schaefer discuss NIWA’s ice coring work at Taylor Glacier in Antarctica.

We found that natural seepage of methane from oil and gas fields is much lower than anticipated, implying that leakage caused by fossil fuel extraction has a larger role in today’s emissions of this greenhouse gas.

However, we also found that vast stores of methane in permafrost and undersea gas hydrates did not release large amounts of their contents during the rapid warming at the end of the most recent ice age, relieving fears of a catastrophic methane release in response to the current warming.

The ice is processed in a large melter before samples are shipped back to New Zealand.
Hinrich Schaefer, CC BY-ND

A greenhouse gas history

Methane levels started to increase with the industrial revolution and are now 2.5 times higher than they ever were naturally. They have caused one-third of the observed increase in global average temperatures relative to pre-industrial times.

If we are to reduce methane emissions, we need to understand where it comes from. Quantifying different sources is notoriously tricky, but it is especially hard when natural and human-driven emissions happen at the same time, through similar processes.

Read more: Detecting methane leaks with infrared cameras: they’re fast, but are they effective

The most important of these cases is natural methane seepage from oil and gas fields, also known as geologic emissions, which often occurs alongside leakage from production wells and pipelines.

The total is reasonably well known, but where is the split between natural and industrial?

To make matters worse, human-caused climate change could destabilise permafrost or ice-like sediments called gas hydrates (or clathrates), both of which have the potential to release more methane than any human activity and reinforce climate change. This scenario has been hypothesised for past warming events (the “clathrate gun”) and for future runaway climate change (the so-called “Arctic methane bomb”). But how likely are these events?

Antarctic ice traps tiny bubbles of air, which represents a sample of ancient atmospheres.
Hinrich Schaefer, CC BY-ND

The time capsule

To find answers, we needed a time capsule. This is provided by tiny air bubbles enclosed in polar ice, which preserve ancient atmospheres. By using radiocarbon (14C) dating to determine the age of methane from the end of the last ice age, we can work out how much methane comes from contemporary processes, like wetland production, and how much is from previously stored methane. During the time the methane is stored in permafrost, sediments or gas fields, the 14C decays away so that these sources emit methane that is radiocarbon-free.

In the absence of strong environmental change and industrial fossil fuel production, all radiocarbon-free methane in samples from, say, 12,000 years ago will be from geologic emissions. From that baseline, we can then see if additional radiocarbon-free methane is released from permafrost or hydrates during rapid warming, which occurred around 11,500 years ago while methane levels shot up.

Tracking methane in ice

The problem is that there is not much air in an ice sample, very little methane in that air, and a tiny fraction of that methane contains a radiocarbon (14C) atom. There is no hope of doing the measurements on traditional ice cores.

Our team therefore went to Taylor Glacier, in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Here, topography, glacier flow and wind force ancient ice layers to the surface. This provides virtually unlimited sample material that spans the end of the last ice age.

A tonne of ice yielded only a drop of methane.
Hinrich Schaefer, CC BY-ND

For a single measurement, we drilled a tonne of ice (equivalent to a cube with one-metre sides) and melted it in the field to liberate the enclosed air. From the gas-tight melter, the air was transferred to vacuum flasks and shipped to New Zealand. In the laboratory, we extracted the pure methane out of these 100-litre air samples, to obtain a volume the size of a water drop.

Only every trillionth of the methane molecules contains a 14C atom. Our collaborators in Australia were able to measure exactly how big that minute fraction is in each sample and if it changed during the studied period.

Low seepage, no gun, no bomb

Because radiocarbon decays at a known rate, the amount of 14C gives a radiocarbon age. In all our samples the radiocarbon date was consistent with the sample age.

Radiocarbon-free methane emissions did not increase the radiocarbon age. They must have been very low in pre-industrial times, even during a rapid warming event. The latter indicates that there was no clathrate gun or Arctic methane bomb going off.

So, while today’s conditions differ from the ice-covered world 12,000 years ago, our findings implicate that permafrost and gas hydrates are not too likely to release large amounts of methane in future warming. That is good news.

Wetlands must have been responsible for the increase in methane at the end of the ice age. They have a lesser capacity for emissions than the immense permafrost and clathrate stores.

Geologic emissions are likely to be lower today than in the ice age, partly because we have since drained shallow gas fields that are most prone to natural seepage. Yet, our highest estimates are only about half of the lower margin estimated for today. The total assessment (natural plus industrial) for fossil-fuel methane emissions has recently been increased.

In addition, we now find that a larger part of that must come from industrial activities, raising the latter to one third of all methane sources globally. For comparison, the last IPCC report put them at 17%.

The ConversationMeasurements in modern air suggest that the rise in methane levels over the last years is dominated by agricultural emissions, which must therefore be mitigated. Our new research shows that the impact of fossil fuel use on the historic methane rise is larger than assumed. In order to mitigate climate change, methane emissions from oil, gas and coal production must be cut sharply.

Hinrich Schaefer, Research Scientist Trace Gases, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.