Global CO2 emissions set to grow again this year

By Benjamin Storrow | 12/04/2023 06:58 AM EST

The findings mark a resumption of the steady climb in global CO2 pollution after several years of seesawing emissions influenced by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Smoke rises from a coal-powered steel plant near the city of Ranchi, India.

Smoke rises from a coal-powered steel plant near the city of Ranchi, India. Altaf Qadri/AP

Global carbon dioxide emissions are set to grow 1.1 percent in 2023, as surging consumption of coal, oil and natural gas continues to increase the output of planet-warming pollution, according to an estimate released Monday by the Global Carbon Project.

Emissions from fossil fuels are on track to hit 36.8 billion tons, a record. Concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere increased by 2.2 million parts per million to reach 419 million ppm — a 51 percent increase over preindustrial levels.

The findings mark a resumption of the steady climb in global CO2 pollution after several years of seesawing emissions output influenced by the Covid-19 pandemic. It leaves the world with one year less to stabilize the increase in global temperatures. The Global Carbon Project estimates the planet has seven years at current emissions levels before global temperatures breach 1.5 degrees Celsius and 28 years before they race past 2 C.


“A few decades ago, no one expected that we would walk up to the 1.5 C threshold. We haven’t walked up to it, but we’ve sprinted,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of earth sciences at Stanford University who chairs the Global Carbon Project. “Will we march past 2 C blithely the way we have 1.5?”

The annual carbon budget report from the Global Carbon Project, which is made up of academics and researchers from around the world, is the gold standard for annual emissions reporting. The 2023 edition found a continuation of dynamics observed in recent years.

CO2 pollution from coal increased 1.1 percent in 2023, as strong demand in China and India erased emissions reductions from plummeting coal consumption in the United States and Europe. Global CO2 emissions from coal grew by 1.1 percent.

China threw off its pandemic-imposed economic shackles in 2023, with coal, oil and natural gas consumption all rising. Chinese emissions were poised to grow 4 percent over 2022 levels and reach 11.9 gigatons, despite a stumbling economy.

The growth in Indian coal generation was particularly strong. The Global Carbon Project estimates the country’s CO2 emissions grew by 8.2 percent to 3.1 gigatons in 2023, with emissions from coal up 9.5 percent on the year. The increase makes India the world’s third-largest emitter after China and the United States, and ahead of Europe.

“The fear is that India today is what China was two decades ago when China began its ramp up that turned China into the world’s biggest emitter,” Jackson said. “That would be catastrophic.”

The finding adds more urgency to climate talks in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where negotiators are laboring to find an agreement over a phaseout of fossil fuels. Developing countries such as India have argued fossil fuels like coal are essential to fueling their economic growth, and that wealthier nations should help pay for the adoption of cleaner technologies.

India has pledged to triple its renewable capacity by 2030. That has the potential to meet two-thirds of the growth in Indian electricity demand by 2032, according to an analysis by Ember, a clean energy think tank.

“India’s electricity supply landscape is projected to change quite significantly in the next decade or so, with solar and wind likely to drive the growth in generation,” Neshwin Rodrigues, Ember India analyst, said in the report.

Yet 2023 shows that trend is still on the horizon, with coal meeting most of the growth in electricity demand. Coal growth had been hampered in recent years by sluggish economic growth associated with the pandemic, but those restraints are no longer in place, said Robbie Andrews, a senior researcher at the Center for International Climate Research who contributed to the Global Carbon Project report.

“There is nothing to suggest 2023 is a one-year blip in India’s coal consumption. India’s economy is growing fast, and in a sense there are no brakes this year to slow things down,” Andrews said.

Some countries are making progress cutting emissions. The Global Carbon Project reckons 26 nations representing more than a quarter of global emissions are on track to cut emissions this year. The declines in Europe and the United States were particularly notable. American emissions are set to fall 3 percent this year to 4.9 gigatons while European emissions are on pace to decline to 2.6 gigatons, a 7.4 percent decrease. The drops are owed mostly to falling coal emissions, which were down by about 18 percent in both the United States and Europe.

Yet emissions from other fossil fuels remain stubbornly high. In the United States, emissions from oil were down 0.3 percent while emissions from gas grew 1.4 percent. European emissions from oil emissions fell 1.5 percent while gas emissions declined 6.6 percent, though much of that drop was attributable to higher prices hampering demand.

“What is the lesson? We have done lots to make sure renewables grow fast, and that is great,” said Glen Peters, another CICERO researcher involved in the Global Carbon Project report. “What is missing is policy to ensure fossil fuels go down. Renewables do not just replace fossil fuels one-on-one, without a little bit more push from policy.”