Science News

Carbon emission decreases must grow tenfold to avoid climate disaster

By Brooks Hays   |   March 3, 2021 at 12:33 PM
Researchers say that while many countries have reduced the pace of their carbon emissions -- including China, pictured -- pledges made in recent years must be linked to clearer, effective actions. File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI

March 3 (UPI) -- Across the globe, many of the world's biggest economies are slowly reducing their carbon footprints. Unfortunately, many developing economies are emitting more carbon today than they were five years ago.

Current rates of greenhouse gas emissions reductions won't be enough to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius.

According to a new study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature Climate Change, countries will need to boost their emissions reductions tenfold to meet the Paris Agreement's prescription for avoiding climate disaster.

Since the Paris Agreement was first drafted in 2015, 64 nations have successfully reduced their carbon emissions -- but only at a rate of 0.16 billion tons of CO2 per year.

To limit catastrophic levels of warming, climate scientists estimate annual reductions of between 1 and 2 billion tons are necessary.


"Countries' efforts to cut CO2 emissions since the Paris Agreement are starting to pay off, but actions are not large-scale enough yet and emissions are still increasing in way too many countries," lead study author Corinne Le Quéré, professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia in Britain, said in a news release.

The latest accounting effort -- part of the Global Carbon Project, an effort to track emissions reductions progress -- showed lockdowns and other policies intended to slow the COVID-19 pandemic led to a 7% reduction in CO2 emissions in 2020, compared to 2019 emissions.

But the authors of the new study said the reductions measured in 2020 are unlikely to last, especially as the pandemic wanes and economies around the globe begin to rebound.

"The drop in CO2 emissions from responses to COVID-19 highlights the scale of actions and of international adherence needed to tackle climate change," Le Quéré said. "Now we need large-scale actions that are good for human health and good for the planet. It is in everyone's best interests to build back better to speed the urgent transition to clean energy."

Researchers found that among the 36 wealthiest countries -- nations with the highest average income -- 25 emitted less CO2 between 2016 and 2019 than they did between 2011 and 2015.

Nearly a third of the 99 upper-middle income countries reduced their emissions between 2016 and 2019.

Even nations that emitted more carbon during the years following the Paris Agreement, like China, have managed to slow the growth of their carbon footprints. Still, the progress is too slow.

Climate scientists estimate 2 degrees Celsius of warming above preindustrial averages is the threshold where warming and climate instability is likely to trigger catastrophic amounts of intolerable heat, prolonged drought, extreme weather and devastating sea level rise.

To stay below that threshold -- closer to 1.5 degrees of warming -- the world's economies must find ways to reduce their carbon emissions by 1 to 2 billion tons per year.

To do that, the authors of the latest study argue countries must start marrying their actions with their verbal commitments and investing in eco-friendly transportation and green energy production.

"Commitments alone aren't enough," said Le Quéré. "Countries need to align post-COVID incentives with climate targets this decade, based on sound science and credible implementation plans. This pressing timeline is constantly underscored by the rapid unfolding of extreme climate impacts worldwide."