Has the World Reached Peak Emissions?

A new report shows the strongest evidence to date that the world has reached peak emissions – at least when it comes to carbon dioxide (CO2). Published by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (NEAA), the study reveals that global CO2 emissions plateaued or fell in almost all of the world’s biggest emitters in 2016, largely due to the decreasing popularity of coal combustion as a primary fuel source.

However, when it comes to other harmful greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as methane, global emissions are still rising. Therefore, there is clearly still much work to be done in the fight against the damaging effects of manmade climate change.

Coal on the decline

As our awareness around the harmful contaminants released during coal combustion grows and the realisation that monitoring emissions fumes from mining matters, this fuel source has become less and less popular in the UK especially and the world over more generally.

This has contributed to a decrease in global emissions of CO2. In fact, aside from India, the EU and the four other biggest emitters worldwide saw their carbon levels level off or drop in 2016. Together, those countries (including India) represent 51% of world population and contribute 68% of global carbon emissions.

The USA and Russia both emitted 2% less carbon in 2016 than the previous year, while Japan emitted 1.3% less. The 28 countries in the EU and China all saw their emissions stay at virtually the same level as last year, meaning that a significant proportion of the world’s carbon emissions were at least prevented from rising. Of those big countries, only India saw a 4.7% rise.

Methane still a big concern

However, carbon may be the biggest contributing factor to climate change – but it’s not the only one. CO2 accounts for roughly 72% of all GHGs; that’s a hefty majority, for sure. However, it still leaves 28% of other gases, including methane, which rose on average by 1% in 2016.

It’s thought that the increase in methane emissions can be largely attributed to an increase in the demand for beef, since cattle rearing inevitably involves a high environmental impact. Only recently has the spotlight fallen onmonitoring methane emissions from agriculture and dairy farming and the latest data highlights how serious a problem our penchant for red meat really is.

Methane accounts for 19% of GHG emissions, making it by far the biggest non-CO2 concern. A quarter of those come from fossil fuel combustion and 23% are caused by cattle, with 10% coming from rice production.

Renewables the way forward

Clearly, reducing the amount of red meat we rear and consume would be very helpful in bringing methane emissions under control, but the role of fossil fuels can hardly be overestimated, especially as they are a major source of CO2, as well.

“These results are a welcome indication that we are nearing the peak in global annual emissions of greenhouse gases,” said Professor Nicholas Stern, a climate economist at the London School of Economics. “However, all countries have to accelerate their emissions reductions if the Paris goals are to be met.”

The best way forward would appear to be strong investment in cleaner forms of energy such as wind, wave and solar power. While nuclear is another option, it retains a high level of controversy due to the risks and connotations involved with manufacturing and storing nuclear energy and its by-products.

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