Global carbon dioxide emissions hit new highs last year, says IEA report

The carbon dioxide output grew more slowly than the global economy, but it still is heading in the wrong direction

By Steven Mufson

Updated March 2, 2023 at 3:00 p.m. EST|Published March 2, 2023 at 1:28 p.m. EST


5 min



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Global emissions of carbon dioxide related to energy production grew by 0.9 percent in 2022, reaching a new high of more than 36.8 billion metric tons, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.

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The growth was slower than expected and slower than last year’s global GDP growth rate of 3.2 percent as renewable energy growth offset much of the impact of greater coal, oil and natural gas use.

But climate experts stressed that global CO2 emissions must be turned around and shrink on a sustained basis if climate targets are to be met. The IEA said that “emissions still remain on an unsustainable growth trajectory.”

“The apparent slowdown in carbon emissions last year is no cause for celebration,” said Antoine Halff, a founding partner of Kayrros, an energy consulting firm that makes extensive use of satellite imagery. “This is not a positive achievement flowing from virtuous climate policies, but rather a byproduct of Russian aggression and its adverse effect on European energy-intensive industries on the one hand, and on the other hand the nefarious effect of China’s public health policies on its economy.”

“I think the headline is: Emissions are still going up,” said Nathaniel Keohane, the president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Although carbon dioxide emissions grew more slowly than GDP, Keohane said, “What drives global warming is not carbon intensity. It’s total emissions, and those are going up.”

The carbon dioxide growth rate was much slower than 2021’s blistering pace of more than 6 percent. That figure had been fueled by a rebound from pandemic-related weakness in energy use, the agency said.

Last year brought its own litany of disruptions. It was marked by war in Ukraine, disruptions in Russian exports of oil and natural gas, pandemic-relatedwork restrictions in China, international energy price shocks, rising inflation and disruptions in trade flows.

As a result, the IEA said, the increase was not as fast as the agency had feared it would be. Industrial production in China and Europe was curtailed. Natural gas consumption in Europe plunged 13.5 percent. And renewables met 90 percent of last year’s global growth in electricity generation, the IEA said.

“Two major events contributed to reducing emissions last year,” said Halff. “China’s zero-covid policy and the war in Ukraine took a big bite off of world carbon emissions last year, but that was partly offset by a resurgence of coal as a substitute for scarce or pricey natural gas.”

Of the 321 million metric ton increase in carbon dioxide emissions, just more than half could be attributed to cooling and heating demand in extreme weather and the rest to nuclear power plants being offline.

U.S. emissions grew by 0.8 percent, with extreme temperatures leading the building sector into the highest emissions growth. The main cutbacks in emissions came from unprecedented increases in solar- and wind-energy output. Many other countries, including Germany, reduced their natural gas use, but the United States increased its use of the fuel by 89 million metric tons.

“A smaller increase than ‘initially feared’ is a far cry from the rapid emission reductions the world needs to see to avoid the worst impacts of global warming,” said Daniel A. Lashof, the director of the World Resources Institute in the United States.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global emissions need to be reduced by more than 40 percent by 2030 to align with the goal of global temperature increase of no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, Lashof added.

“So, any increase in emissions, even a small one, means we are getting further and further off course,” he said.

Coal is a big factor in the rise observed in 2022.Before the pandemic, coal seemed to be on its last legs — which was part of why many scientists in 2020 thought global CO2 emissions might have reached their peak. But in the past couple of years, coal has made a resurgence, largely because of the war in Ukraine and the resulting increase in natural gas prices.

This fossil fuel may have more of a future than analysts previously thought. China last year approved the largest expansion of coal-fired power plants since 2015, according to a report by the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, a Finland-based nongovernmental organization, and the nonprofit Global Energy Monitor, which tracks fossil fuel infrastructure.

“That’s the flashing red light,” Keohane said. “There’s no pathway to a stable climate that involves increasing or even continuing coal use.”

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