More greenhouse gases were produced in 2018 than any previous year, despite more than 20 countries reducing their carbon emissions since 2000, research from UNSW Sydney and their collaborators has shown.
And while the COVID-19 pandemic may have brought about a temporary reprieve in carbon emission, experts have forecast a return to the previous upward trajectory of greenhouse gas production after observing economic growth moving back to previous levels.
In a study published this week in Environmental Research Letters,the researchers show that road transport, meat consumption and a global trend towards expanding floorspaces – otherwise the hallmarks of affluent economies – were big factors behind greenhouse gas increases while industry, agriculture and the energy systems continued to account for a substantial slab of the carbon emission total.
Professor Tommy Wiedmann from UNSW’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering was part of a team of 29 researchers from six continents that examined the latest, globally available emissions data for the decade leading up to 2018.
He says the group looked at emissions in 10 regions of the world as well as comparing which sectors in each were responsible for the largest emissions – and which showed the largest growth.
“The main thing we found is that almost everywhere we looked, and in almost every sector, greenhouse gas emissions just kept on rising, right up to the beginning of COVID-19, when we had the highest greenhouse gas emissions we've ever had,” Prof. Wiedmann says.
“This is despite the fact there are more than 20 countries that have reduced their emissions. It’s when you take this bird’s eye view of the total emissions that you see that those reductions barely make a difference.”
Prof. Wiedmann says he knew that emissions were still growing, but he was surprised that moves towards renewable energy have not made larger dents in the emissions.
“The results are quite sobering, we just haven’t been able to bend the curve. Yes, we have slowed the growth of emissions a bit when compared to the decade leading up to 2010, but if we want to meet the Paris Agreement target by 2050, then we have to get emissions down really quickly.”
The study divided sectors into the five major groups of energy, industry, buildings, transport, and land use. The researchers focused on the trends in these sectors and their underlying components – such as electricity generation, road transport, or livestock emissions – as well as broad drivers like economic growth, population growth, energy efficiency, and carbon intensity of different human activities. They calculated the extent to which each factor had an impact for each sector and world region.
Lead author of the study, researcher Dr. William Lamb from Berlin’s Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, says global greenhouse gas emissions increased by 11 per cent from 2010 to 2018.
“Only a few sectors saw a significant downward trend, such as the energy sector in Europe,” Dr. Lamb says.
“By contrast, climate-damaging coal power generation increased in Asia. And emissions in the transport and building sectors rose in almost all regions of the world – this was in part because people in rich countries are travelling more and more and taking up more and more living space.”
The study also found that global freight travel activity grew by 68 per cent in the last two decades, while the largest emitter overall was the industrial sector, adding the equivalent of 20.1 gigatonnes of CO2 worldwide in 2018, which was 35 per cent of total emissions and 14 per cent more than in 2010.