NEW YORK (AP) — Communities around the world emitted more carbon dioxide in 2022 than any other year according to data from 1900, due to the recovery of air travel after the pandemic and more cities turning to coal as a cheap source of energy.
Emissions of the climate-warming gas, caused by energy production, grew by 0.9% to 36.8 gigatons in 2022, the International Energy Agency reported Thursday. (The mass of one gigaton is equivalent to about 10,000 fully loaded aircraft carriers, according to NASA.)
Carbon dioxide is released when fossil fuels such as oil, coal or natural gas are burned to power cars, planes, homes and factories. When the gas enters the atmosphere, it traps heat and contributes to global warming.
Extreme weather events intensified carbon dioxide emissions last year: drought reduced water availability for hydropower, increasing the need to burn fossil fuels. And heat waves drove up the demand for electricity.
Thursday’s report was described as troubling by climate scientists, who warn that energy consumers around the world must cut emissions dramatically to slow the dire effects of global warming.
“Any increase in emissions — even 1% — is a failure,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project, an international group. “We can’t afford growth. We can’t afford to stand still. It’s austerity or chaos for the planet. Every year with higher coal emissions is a bad year for our health and for the Earth.”
Carbon dioxide emissions from coal grew 1.6% last year. Many communities, mainly in Asia, switched from natural gas to coal to avoid the high natural gas prices exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the IEA said.
And as global air traffic increased, carbon dioxide emissions from burning oil increased by 2.5%, with about half of that coming from the aviation sector.
According to data from the IEA, global emissions have increased in most years since 1900 and accelerated over time. An exception was the pandemic year 2020, when travel came to a virtual standstill.
Last year’s emissions level, while a record high, was nonetheless lower than experts had expected. Increased use of renewable energy, electric vehicles and heat pumps have collectively helped prevent an additional 550 megatons of carbon dioxide emissions, the IEA said.
Severe pandemic measures and weak economic growth in China also limited production, limiting overall global emissions. And in Europe, the IEA said, electricity generation from wind and solar power surpassed that from gas or nuclear power for the first time.
“Without clean energy, the growth in CO2 emissions would have been nearly three times higher,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, said in a statement.
“However, we still see fossil fuel emissions increasing, hampering efforts to meet global climate targets. International and national fossil fuel companies are earning record revenues and must take their share of responsibility in line with their public commitments to meet climate targets.”
While emissions continue to grow at worrying levels, a reversal remains possible that would help meet the climate goals countries have committed to, said John Sterman, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Sustainability Initiative.
Countries should subsidize renewables, improve energy efficiency, electrify industry and transportation, set a high price on carbon emissions, reduce deforestation, plant trees and de-carbonize the coal system, Sterman argued.
“This is a huge, huge undertaking to do all these things, but that’s what it takes,” he said.