Global CO2 Emissions Have Stalled for a Third Consecutive Year

Image courtesy of the United States Energy Information Administration.

Tanner Walker
Science & Tech Editor

The European Union’s Joint Research Council and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency released findings from their 2016 analysis on Oct. 20 that confirms CO2 emission levels have been slowing down since 2012 and remaining stagnant for a third year in a row.

Notably, most highly-developed and populated countries reduced or stabilized their emissions. The United States, Russia, and Japan all lowered their emissions in 2016 compared to 2015, while emissions in the European Union and China stayed the same. Some countries, like India and Saudi Arabia, continued trends of increasing CO2 emissions.

Data for methane and nitrous oxide, two other byproducts of burning fossil fuels, are only available until 2012, as the report states these figures are dependent on data from international agriculture activity, while data on CO2 emissions is more frequently updated because it comes from industries like transportation and power production.

However, the data from 2012 shows a small increase in total emissions of methane and no change of those for nitrous oxide.

CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide are all greenhouse gases, which trap heat inside the earth’s atmosphere. Sunlight is filtered by the earth’s atmosphere, which lets in some heat and radiation but blocks out extreme temperatures and harmful radiation.

Greenhouse gases that exist naturally act as a buffer to keep the planet’s temperature stable. Without them, temperatures would fluctuate to extreme highs during the day and extreme lows at night. Greenhouses gases are essential to life on earth, but an excess of them traps more heat than needed and contributes to climate change.

The amount of greenhouse gases a country produces varies widely. CO2 is by far the most common greenhouse gas produced for all countries. In 2012, nearly five times as much CO2 was produced than the next leading gas, methane.

CO2’s main source of emissions comes from burning fossil fuels for everything from personal transportation to producing electricity for an entire country. For developing nations without a large power grid and strict automotive pollution laws, transportation accounts for almost all of their CO2 emissions.

In Afghanistan, the power industry actually produced less CO2 in 2016 than it did in 1990, while emissions from transportation rose by 500 percent over the same period. In the United States, transportation and power industries have remained relatively equal producers of CO2 since 1990, but in recent years the transportation industry has reduced its output more rapidly than the energy industry has.

While global emissions of methane, which traps heat much more effectively than CO2, are dwarfed by global CO2 emissions, some countries do produce more of methane than any other gas. In Uruguay, a country home to four times as many cows as people, methane emissions are more than triple in amount than CO2 and nitrous oxide emissions.

As a whole, the report shows signs of progress toward achieving goals set by climate change agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement, which set goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the stagnation of CO2 emissions, overall emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise, and current climate and population trends present a different set of challenges. More methane-producing livestock will be needed to feed a growing population, and as global temperatures increase, melting permafrost releases methane and CO2.