Global carbon emissions stalled in 2016, offering a hint of progress

September 28, 2017, 5:22 p.m.
Smokestack from a factory
Photo: Tumarkin Igor - ITPS/Shutterstock

Call it the year the emissions stood still. Just don’t call it a victory — at least, not yet.

But we can strike a hopeful note from a new report suggesting global carbon dioxide emissions stayed about the same last year.

The study, published on Sept. 28 by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (NEAA), credits the switch to natural gas and renewable energy, among major carbon-emitting countries, for much of the slowdown.

“These results are a welcome indication that we are nearing the peak in global annual emissions of greenhouse gases,” Lord Nicholas Stern, a professor at the London School of Economics, tells The Guardian.

“To realize the goals of the Paris agreement and hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C [3.6°F], we must reach peak emissions as soon as possible and then achieve a rapid decline soon afterwards,” he continued.

In fact, China, the U.S., Japan and Russia, along with the EU, saw modest dips in carbon production.

India, on the other hand, stood out in the opposite way, seeing emissions rise by 4.7 percent.

Although it marks the third straight year global emissions have remained relatively static, greenhouse gases are still being dumped into the atmosphere — more than 35 billion tons of CO2 in 2016. The consequences of that may be leading to extreme and potentially disastrous weather phenomena, including more intense hurricanes.

It’s important also to note that not all greenhouses gases hail from a factory chimney or a tailpipe. Methane, another key culprit in global warming, continued to rise last year, with cattle production accounting for nearly a quarter of all methane emissions.

The world’s appetite for meat has prompted ever-larger cattle operations, which in turn pump ever-more methane into the atmosphere.So, while the short-term findings offer plenty to be hopeful about — most notably, the real impact we can have by making changes in our energy habits — it’s important to keep in mind that climate change didn’t happen overnight. And so, too, slowing it down, will take a long-term commitment from all of us.

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