2022 a “record year” for carbon emissions as path to avoid worst impacts of climate change narrows: “There’s no time to wait”

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The burning of fossil fuels continues to wreak havoc on Earth’s stability. A group of more than 100 scientists has determined that 2022 will be a “record year” for carbon emissions — a finding that comes as world leaders gather in Egypt at COP27 to discuss the urgency in minimizing global warming to prevent the worst outcomes of climate change. 

Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas created by human activities, making its emissions a major contributor to global warming. The burning of fossil fuels overwhelmingly contributes to its increased concentrations, and international agencies and scientists have urged that such activities must be significantly reduced — and fast — to prevent excessive warming.  

This report shows that such prompts have been unsuccessful. 

Global carbon dioxide emissions dropped at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, but rebounded in 2021. This year, they are expected to increase another 1% to reach a level above those seen in 2019, making 2022 a “new record year” for fossil CO2 emissions. Emissions specifically from coal, oil and gas are expected to be above levels seen in 2021. 

The Global Carbon Project published the findings.

Those increased emissions have raised the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. This year, the concentration shows an average of 417.2 parts per million (ppm), an increase from last year’s record high. The last time carbon concentrations in the atmosphere have been this high was more than 3 million years ago.

“This represents an increase in atmospheric CO2 of around 51%, relative to pre-industrial levels,” climate scientist Zeke Hausfather said. 

Some regions have seen decreases in their emissions – China by 0.9% and the European Union by 0.8% – but many others are seeing significant increases. The U.S., which has long been the world’s top carbon emitter, saw its emissions increase by 1.5% this year. India, ranked No. 7 for carbon emissions, according to Carbon Brief, saw an increase of 6%. 

The planet relies on land and ocean carbon sinks to help offset such concentrations. The “sinks” are things like plants, the ocean and soil, that absorb more carbon than they release. But Hausfather explained that they “cannot expand forever” and that they are expected to weaken over time as the impacts of climate change worsen. 

In fact, it’s already happening. 

Oceans, which absorb about half of carbon dioxide emissions, have had their ability to absorb CO2 reduced by about 4%, Hausfather said. 

“If emissions continue to increase, the portion of global emissions remaining in the atmosphere – that is, the airborne fraction – will grow, making the amount of climate change the world experiences worse than it otherwise would be,” he said.  

Matt Jones, one of the study’s authors, said that the findings do, however, offer “some hope” – the total amount of human emissions seems to be “leveling off.” 

Land-use change emissions, primarily from deforestation, are projected to be about 10 times less than fossil fuel emissions in 2022, but Jones said that estimation comes with “the highest uncertainty,” among researchers’ other findings.

All sources considered, 2022 emissions remain high “but approximately flat since 2015,” researchers said in a presentation, “but this trend is uncertain.” 

And at current rates, the world is headed down a path to catastrophe. The U.N. has warned that minimizing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial times seems to be no longer possible, and this report highlights its unlikelihood. Researchers said that to make that happen, no more than 380 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide – about 9 years of emissions based on 2022 numbers – can be released in the years to come. 

Sharply decreasing carbon emissions has been a major goal of scientists and international agencies. One of the main aspects of the Paris Climate Agreement calls for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to reduce warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

But to make that happen, the world would have to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1.4 billion tonnes per year, scientists of this report found. That would be the equivalent of almost completely cutting out cement production in 2021, which produced 1.67 billion tonnes of carbon emissions. 

“We have to reduce…greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible,” Pierre Friedlingstein, the study’s lead author said. “…This decade through the 2030s is a time when we really have to show action and global emissions going down as quickly as possible. There’s no time to wait.” 

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