Humanity is supposed to be killing itself with climate change. As we burn untold amounts of coal, oil, and other fossil fuels for energy, it puts greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide into the air, which trap the sun’s heat in the atmosphere and warm the planet.
According to the UN, 2016 is going to be the hottest year on record. These increasingly warm temperatures are supposed to increase the likelihood of calamities such as hurricanes and droughts.
Or will it? According to researchers at the Global Carbon Project, carbon dioxide levels have held flat for three years running. These reduced CO2 emissions have come even as the global economy has continued to grow.
And now, the group reports, 2016 appears to be similar to 2014 and 2015, based on early projections. It will be about a 0.2 percent increase above the emissions levels of 2015, the group calculates, or barely a rise at all.
The results were released in the form of a massive study in the journal Earth System Science Data, written by no less than 67 researchers from an army of institutions. That’s what it takes, it seems, to chart the annual flow of carbon throughout the Earth’s systems.
“2016 we estimate to be flat again,” said Glen Peters, one of the contributors to the research and a scientist at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research-Oslo in Norway. “It’s definitely three years, it’s fairly flat, which is quite a contrast to a decade ago, when it was growing at about 3 percent. It’s really leveled out the last few years.”
The biggest reason for the fall in CO2 levels is that China and the United States are burning less coal. The Chinese have moved away from coal because the smog was turning their cities into ashtrays. They’re transitioning towards hydroelectric power, nuclear, natural gas, solar, and wind, all of which are better for the environment than coal.
The United States’ shift from coal is being driven mostly by natural gas and a little by the EPA, both of which have driven U.S. CO2 emissions down sharply since 2007. Wind and solar have also substantially increased their market shares over the past decade.
And the world’s carbon output is likely to fall even further. As fracking continues to expand, it becomes more economical for poorer countries to transition away from coal and towards cleaner burning natural gas. It may even be possible to develop a technique whereby bacteria convert CO2 into methane fuel, the largest component of natural gas. Solar energy is also getting much cheaper. And advanced technology such as microgrids will one day allow the smallest neighborhoods and towns to have their own decentralized electrical grids, which could theoretically be powered by solar and other renewables.
As people become wealthier and freer, they inevitably demand a cleaner environment. This isn’t done by government bureaucrats and regulations, but by market-based solutions and individuals taking action on their own.