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Global fossil fuel emissions rise above pre-pandemic levels – Expert Reaction

Global carbon emissions from fossil fuels are projected to increase by 1% in 2022, putting an end to the reductions made in 2020 – but could New Zealand buck the trend?

This year’s annual Global Carbon Budget shows that New Zealand did not see the carbon emissions rebound that the rest of the world did in 2021 – however NZ’s latest data only goes until March 2022, before our border fully reopened to international travel.

The Budget summarises scientists’ best understanding of the world’s CO2 emissions, balancing the fossil fuel emissions from each nation, against the carbon fluxes between the land, sea, and atmosphere. It will be released at the COP27 UN Climate Change Conference currently underway in Egypt.

The SMC asked experts to comment on what the Budget shows about the world’s emissions, and New Zealand’s contribution.

Distinguished Professor Robert McLachlan, School of Mathematical and Computational Sciences, Massey University, comments:

“The Global Carbon Budget provides amazingly up-to-date data both on fossil CO2 emissions and on where it ends up: in the air (55%), the land (30%), and the oceans (25%), with atmospheric CO2 estimated to reach a significant milestone of 50% above pre-industrial levels during 2022. The news that 2022 emissions will be slightly higher than those of the pre-pandemic year of 2019 confirms the call from COP27 both for stronger targets from individual countries and for stronger action on existing targets. New Zealand is exposed on both fronts.

“While existing pledges add up to 2.1 ºC of global warming – down from 3.6 ºC prior to the Paris Agreement – actual policies only reach 2.7 ºC. On current trends, global warming will average over 1.5 ºC in the mid-to-late 2030s (although individual years could hit 1.5 ºC much sooner.) Therefore, the 2020s are still the crucial decade for climate action.

“New Zealand also now has rapid emissions reporting, with quarterly updates to Q2 2022. Emissions are unlikely to rebound to 2019 levels this year, as international travel is still below pre-Covid levels and petrol use is down 10% due to higher prices and working from home. Those might not stick, but at least some policies are in place for fossil CO2. The biggest areas of concern for New Zealand remain how to credibly meet our Paris target of halving emissions by 2030; how to reduce agricultural emissions by the agreed amount; and how to shift the focus to reducing gross (rather than just net) emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases. If there is a shift in public and community action, it’s at very early stages – fossil fueled cars are still being bought in great numbers, and the switch to bikes and trains just getting out of the starting blocks. As Vanessa Bowden of the University of Newcastle said yesterday, “A technologically advanced society is choosing to destroy itself.””

No conflict of interest.

Dr Jocelyn Turnbull, Radiocarbon Science Leader, GNS Science, comments:

“Each year, the Global Carbon Project reminds us how global and local emissions are tracking. This year, there is good news and bad news. 

“The good news is that global emissions have stayed roughly flat since 2015, with a 2020 Covid dip and a global rebound to not-quite-2019-levels in 2022. This year’s rebound of about 1% is attributed to a delayed return to air travel after Covid, with some interesting details: China’s ongoing lockdowns mean that their massive growth in emissions over the last two decades has slowed, whereas India’s emissions are growing rapidly as they strive to catch up economically with the rest of the world. That’s a reminder of why COP27 in Egypt this week is talking about global emissions equity and the need for developed nations to support developing nations – we must ensure that global efforts to reduce emissions do not leave some nations behind economically and socially. 

“The bad news is that flat emissions still mean a continuing increase in CO2 in the atmosphere – seen in measurements from the iconic Keeling curve measured in Hawaii and from NIWA’s data from Baring Head near Wellington (the linked graphs have been updated this week). To get to flat CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, and hence to stop increasing global warming, we need to reduce global emissions to zero, and Aotearoa needs to do our part. To reach net zero in 2050, that means a decrease in emissions of around 4% per year in NZ and around the world over the next few years.

“NZ tends to be lumped into “Rest of World” in these global emissions analyses, since our total emissions are small – even though our per capita emissions are quite high. This highlights the need for NZ to understand our own emissions and meet our commitments to the international Paris Agreement and our Zero Carbon Act. Our national emissions reporting through MfE and StatsNZ’s regional emissions information are a very good start, but we still need better emissions information at the local scale to ensure that we can identify and enact mitigation opportunities.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Andy Reisinger, climate scientist, comments:

“New Zealand is unusual in that our contribution to global climate change so far is dominated by methane rather than by carbon dioxide. So what we do about methane really matters. However, given we are talking about the Global Carbon Budget, I will focus on our CO2 emissions.

“New Zealand’s net CO2 emissions (fossil CO2 emissions, minus CO2 removals from land use trends and forestry) are actually very low. New Zealand was close to carbon neutrality in 1990, and even today, our net CO2 emissions per capita are well below the global average. But that’s not because we had or have low fossil CO2 emissions, it’s because most of our fossil CO2 emissions over the past 30 years have been counterbalanced by simultaneous CO2 removals by growing forests. It might be worth noting though that the forest planting occurring now is just partially reversing significant deforestation that has occurred since the beginning of human occupation of NZ, including over the past 150 years.

“If you look just at the gross emissions of fossil CO2 per capita in New Zealand, these are actually higher than the average across the EU 27 member states, but well below Australia or the USA. In New Zealand a very large share of our electricity supply comes from renewable sources. So the fact that our fossil CO2 emissions per capita are higher than in the EU average reflects our continued high use of fossil fuels for purposes other than electricity, in particular heat and transport.

“Based on 2021 emissions data provided by Statistics New Zealand, in New Zealand we have not seen the global rebound in fossil CO2 emissions that the Global Carbon Budget outlines. The quarterly updates by Statistics New Zealand on household and industry emissions tell a really interesting story why this is the case. Household emissions related to transport rebounded very quickly to their pre-Covid levels after the 2020 nation-wide lockdown, and only saw another small dip from the Auckland lockdown in 2021. Basically we stopped driving our cars for a while and then got back into them. The emissions from service industries, especially those involving transport, also saw a sharp drop triggered by the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, and but they haven’t really recovered but remained at lower levels at least up to March 2022. That’s likely to be a reflection of the international travel restrictions and the ongoing overall impact of Covid on those industries and their slow recovery.

“By contrast, goods producing industries saw a much smaller dip in their emissions in 2020. Their emissions, especially related to electricity production, depend strongly on the energy mix that goes into electricity, and the balance between coal and gas. We’ve seen a large variation in electricity-related emissions, from a peak in the June 21 quarter where we had a high use of coal in the electricity mix and only 74.9% renewables, to much lower emissions in the December 21 quarter when we had virtually no coal, lower use of gas, and more than 90% renewables in the electricity mix. This shows the emissions benefits that a steady shift towards more renewables could bring.

“For now these quarterly variations reflect mostly Covid, climate and the changing cost of living – the challenge for climate policy is to drive durable, long-term trends that go beyond such short-term variations, and that tackle CO2 emissions across the overall energy mix, including electricity, heat, other industrial uses, and of course reducing the use of fossil fuels in our transport system.”

Note: Dr Andy Reisinger also took part in a media briefing, which can be viewed here.

Conflict of interest statement: Dr Reisinger is a New Zealand Climate Change Commissioner but is commenting here in his capacity as a climate scientist. He is a member of the IPCC bureau (vice-chair, IPCC Working Group III).

Dr Hinrich Schaefer, Atmospheric Scientist, NIWA, comments:

“Given that observations by NIWA and international collaborators show that global atmospheric CO2 is rising at the fastest rates ever observed, the newest Global Carbon Budget was unlikely to bring good news. Indeed, the report shatters the hope that economic decisions around the Covid pandemic would turn us towards a brighter climate future. To avoid the worst of the climate crisis, we need continued reductions of emissions as large as those from the pandemic disruption every single year. Instead, fossil fuel emissions are already higher again than 2019, even though the economies in China and the EU are suppressed by Covid measures and the Ukraine war. Going at the present pace, we will exceed the threshold for dangerous climate change in only nine years.

“A few glimmers of hope in the report include the example of 24 economies that reduced their emissions while growing their economy. Rising fossil fuel emissions have likely been balanced by reduced carbon fluxes from land use, although this hasn’t stopped atmospheric CO2 from rising.

“The GCB report does not repeat the well-known actions needed to avoid the worst of the climate, but it shows more clearly than ever that we must take them right now.”

No conflict of interest.

Ralph Sims, Emeritus Professor of Sustainable Energy and Climate Mitigation, Massey University, comments:

“The newly released international Global Carbon Budget paper has confirmed recent findings of the IEA (International Energy Agency) that emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels have bounced back after a dip in 2020 due to Covid-19. New Zealand is likely to follow this trend with coal combustion at Huntley power station and also for process heat; continued high demand for natural gas; and the continuing consumer preference for larger petrol/diesel light duty vehicles – though this has been partly offset by recent growth in numbers of EVs.

“The atmospheric concentration of CO2 has grown around 30% from around 320 parts per million in 1960 to almost 420 ppm in 2020 with no sign of the annual rate of increase declining. The IEA report however is optimistic that fossil fuel demand will peak in the near future due to rising prices making ever-cheaper renewable energy options more competitive. In addition there is a growing realisation by many countries that security of energy supply to reduce reliance on imports of coal, gas, LPG, and oil products is wise in the uncertain future the world offers. This is the reason why the NZ Government has just ensured there will be a month’s supply of petrol, diesel and aviation fuels stored on-shore.

“The Carbon Budget analysis assesses the limits to the remaining volume of fossil fuels that can be extracted and combusted if the world is to stay below a 1.5°C or 2°C temperature rise. For example, this latest analysis shows that to stay below 1.5°C, only a further 380 billion tonnes of CO2 can be emitted (with 50% likelihood) and at the current annual rate of around 37 gigatonnes CO2, this budget could be exceeded within 10 years. Reducing emissions and increasing carbon offsets (e.g. forest sinks) will extend this period. Even so, as the IPCC has been reporting for many years, around two thirds of the known oil, gas and coal reserves will have to stay in the ground if the global carbon budget is not to be exceeded.

“So the key question then is why do we keep looking for more?

“In NZ on-shore oil/gas exploration continues in Taranaki and in Southland. Bathurst, the Australian mining company, has been given approval by the District Council to explore for yet more coal, though Forest & Bird has undertaken a judicial review to question this decision.

“On a per capita basis for CO2 emissions, New Zealand is lower than many countries, mainly due to having 80% renewable electricity and also our present forest sinks contributing to having lower net emissions. However, this is no reason for Kiwis to become complacent and individuals and businesses have no choice but to reduce our carbon footprints. Commentators at COP 27 in Egypt are stating that staying below the 1.5°C target agreed at COP 21 in Paris is becoming less plausible so more urgent mitigation action is required. A major educational programme is required, perhaps akin to the Government’s Covid response promotion, since although most people now accept that climate impacts are happening and will only get worse, relatively few have taken actions to significantly reduce their personal emissions.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Expert comment gathered by the SMC Spain – Science Media Centre España:

Vanesa Castán Broto, Professor of Climate Urbanism at the University of Sheffield and IPCC expert, says:

“The results of the Global Carbon Budget 2022 are bleak. The report explains that carbon emissions are continuing to rise, and that, if this continues, it will lead to an increase in global average temperature to above the 1.5°C limit in just 9 years. This limit is significant because it indicates that climate change will reach a very destructive stage in a single decade. As the IPCC explained in the AR6 Working Group II report, published in February 2022, every temperature increase, however small, reduces our ability to adapt to climate change.

“However, this report does not demonstrate a total lack of action on climate change. Indeed, there is widespread interest in responding to climate change and there is evidence of responses from the public and private sectors, and from NGOs, community organisations, and individuals. These efforts, however, are not enough. In my opinion, these voluntary efforts must be accompanied by agreements to regulate the use of fossil fuels, especially at the global level.

“The Global Carbon Budget data have a positive aspect, because they show that progress on the path to zero-carbon is possible in regions such as China and the European Union. The International Energy Agency has also recently published the 2022 World Energy Outlook, which explains that renewables are still on the rise. However, data from countries such as the United States are less optimistic and show the need, once again, for a global alliance to tackle one of the biggest problems of our generation.”

No conflict of interest.