Global emissions from fossil fuels have stalled. That puts us in the right place to keep warming below 2℃, but there's plenty of work still to be done.

Last year we found that the growth in global fossil fuel emissions have stalled over the past three years. But does this mean we are on track to keep global warming below 2℃, as agreed under the 2015 Paris Agreement?

In our study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change today, we looked at how global and national energy sectors are progressing towards global climate targets.

We found that we can still keep global warming below 2℃ largely thanks to increasing use of clean energy, a global decline in coal use, improvements in energy efficiency, and a consequent stalling of emissions from fossil fuels over the past three years.

Nations need to accelerate deployment of existing technologies to lock in and build on the gains of the last three years. More challenging, is the needed investment to develop new technologies and behaviours necessary to get to net-zero global emissions by mid-century.

World moving away from fossil fuels

We looked at several key measures, including carbon emissions from fossil fuels, the carbon intensity of the energy system (how much carbon is produced for each unit of energy) and the amount of carbon emitted to produce one dollar of wealth.

The world share of energy from fossil fuels is starting to decline. There has been no growth in coal consumption and strong growth in energy from wind, biomass, solar and hydro power. The emerging trend is therefore towards lower carbon emissions from energy production.

Energy efficiency has also improved globally in recent years, reversing the trends of the 2000s. These improvements are reducing the amount of carbon emissions to produce new wealth.

From all these changes, global fossil fuel emissions have not grown over the past three years. Remarkably, this has occurred while the global economy has continued to grow.

As the global economy grows, it is using less energy to produce each unit of wealth as economies become more efficient and shift towards services.

These promising results show that, globally, we are broadly in the right starting position to keep warming below 2℃.

But modelling suggests that stringent climate policy will only slightly accelerate this historical trend of improvements in energy intensity. And to keep warming below 2℃ will require deep and sustained reductions in the carbon intensity of how energy is produced.

Looking at the carbon intensity of energy (how much carbon is produced for each unit of energy) shows that current emissions (black line) are in the right spot to keep warming below 2℃ (blue, red and yellow lines). However we’ll need much more work to close the mitigation gap (brown line). Peters et al 2016, Author provided
Looking at the carbon intensity of energy (how much carbon is produced for each unit of energy) shows that current emissions (black line) are in the right spot to keep warming below 2℃ (blue, red and yellow lines). However we’ll need much more work to close the mitigation gap (brown line). Peters et al 2016, Author provided

Looking at the carbon intensity of energy (how much carbon is produced for each unit of energy) shows that current emissions (black line) are in the right spot to keep warming below 2℃ (blue, red and yellow lines). However we’ll need much more work to close the mitigation gap (brown line). Peters et al 2016, Author provided

China leading the charge

We also looked at the countries that will have the greatest global impact.

The slowdown in global emissions in the past three years is due in large part to the reduced growth in coal consumption in China. Fossil fuel emissions in China grew at 10% per year over most of the 2000s, but have not grown since 2013. This signals a possible peak in emissions more than a decade earlier than predicted.

China is showing a significant decline in the share of fossil fuels in its energy sector. This has been driven by the decline in coal and the growth of renewable energies. The carbon intensity of fossil fuels has also been falling, for instance by burning coal more efficiently.

The United States has also reduced emissions in the last decade, with significant declines in coal consumption, particularly in the last few years. These declines have several causes, including a weaker economy in the last decade and continued improvements in energy efficiency, which have led to lower energy demand.

Emissions in the US have further declined due to a decline in carbon intensity of fossil fuels driven by the shift from coal to natural gas and the growth in renewables.

Emissions have declined in the European Union for several decades, most notably in the past 10 years as a weaker economy, along with continual improvements in energy efficiency, has led to declines in emissions. These declines are speeding up with the growing share of renewables in the energy sector.

India has sustained an emissions growth of 5-6% per year and is expected to continue growing, with little change in the underlying drivers of emissions growth.

Australia’s fossil fuel emissions have been stable or declining since 2009 as a result of the combined decline in the energy intensity of the economy and the carbon intensity of energy. However, fossil fuel emissions have grown since 2015.

The devil is in the detail

There is one big “but” in our analysis. We found that current fossil fuel trends are consistent with keeping warming below 2℃ because the future climate scenarios we use – assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – allow for relatively large amounts of fossil fuels use in the future.

These scenarios assume that large amounts of the carbon emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels will be removed using carbon capture and storage (CCS).

CCS is also widely used together with bioenergy to produce a technology that in effect removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In this process, plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, burning these plants produces bioenergy, and the resulting CO₂ emissions are captured and stored underground. The plants grow again and the cycle is repeated.

Most scenarios rely on large-scale deployment of CCS, in the order of thousands of CCS facilities by 2030, to keep warming under 2℃. At present, just a few tens of facilities are being planned. There is also a lack of commitment to CCS in most pledges under the Paris Agreement for 2030.

Although many of the current indicators are consistent with limiting warming to 2℃, there is now an urgent need for deployment of CCS to avoid the divergence from those pathways. That is unless technological alternatives can be deployed to cover the mitigation gap that is quickly emerging.

Many emissions scenarios also include removing large amounts of CO₂ from the atmosphere. Although bioenergy with CCS is the preferred technology in those scenarios, there is an equally urgent need to invest in the research and development of alternative negative emission technologies, potentially with a smaller environmental footprint.

Turning the slowdown into a decline

It is significant that emissions growth has slowed in the last three years. This is necessary to move onto an emission pathway consistent with keeping global average temperatures below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels.

The short-term challenge is to lock in this slowdown from declining coal use, switching coal for gas, and the increasing share of clean energy. This will reduce the risk of emissions rebounding if the global economy grows more strongly in the short term.

However, our research shows that for emissions to move onto a downward trend at the required speed will require emission reductions in a broader range of sectors and more rapid deployment of existing low-carbon technologies.

Ultimately, reaching zero emissions this century will require a rapid program of research and development to support a wide range of low-carbon technologies, including systems to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The Conversation

Pep Canadell, CSIRO Scientist, and Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project, CSIRO; Corinne Le Quéré, Professor, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia, and Glen Peters, Senior Researcher, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


  1. Although I can see Pep Canadell reads and responds to this blog, my question about the link between CO2 levels and climate changes remains unanswered – by anyone. I take that as evidence that no-one is able to show any such link. One would think that it would be necessary to show such a link exists before launching expensive campaigns.

  2. The theory “that the growth in global fossil fuel emissions have stalled over the past three years” is shown to be false by the actual facts of the measurement of atmospheric Co2 which has been steadily increasing over the period that this article falsely claims “have stalled”. The facts are the steady increase over this period has seen atmospheric carbon pollution emissions increasing to now 400 parts per million. The fantasy that the use of gas causes a lower carbon emission footprint has demonstratively been proven false, with the furtive emissions of methane from virtually every gas well now recognized (except apparently by the CSIRO who has got into bed and is now compromised by the gas companies).

  3. The world will one day no longer burn carbon, but that ‘one day’ is about 50 years away. In the meantime the rich people will make sure that they and theirs are relatively safe.
    Right now they protect themselves with filters etc wherever they are needed. Take Beijing – thousands of lives are lost each year, this will go on and will affect other countries.
    Politics and big business will see that it goes on.
    As for the 2 degrees – I get the feeling that it will be a little more that that. In our little world in NSW we have noticed very substantial changes this past 20 years.

  4. OK, so you can reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but can you – or anyone you know of – show that changing carbon dioxide levels have ANY effect on climate changes??

    [CO2 is a greenhouse gas, but so are all gases in the atmosphere as all gases absorb heat one way or another, eg IR, conduction, convection, winds, etc. Do you imagine that gases do NOT absorb heat, eg would cold oxygen or nitrogen or argon, etc in a sealed container remain cold when placed in a warm environment? That’s never been noted, but that’s what AGW proponents state – implicitly only, because it sounds/is stupid as an open statement.]

    As the so-called “greenhouse gases” constitute only a tiny proportion of the atmosphere, then so are their contributions to the atmosphere’s heat content, and therefore tiny effect on climate changes.

  5. It is nice to see an article on climate change here. They have been lacking for a while. Still this article speaks about things I have never seen yet, namely Carbon capture and storage and at this stage it simply isn’t believable as a process to remove carbon. Solid carbon buried underground is the only thing so far that I have seen personally that works.
    I.e. coal. Perhaps an article on successful storage plants would be good? but anyway..Does anyone know how long the earth would take to remove the total carbon excess from the atmosphere if through some magic we were able to reduce annual carbon emissions to pre-industrial levels?

    1. if the question is how long the earth would take to clean all the excess CO2 we put in the atmosphere if we were to stop all emissions tomorrow, the answer is about 60% would be removed in 100 years, which would go down to 80% in the following 1000 years, and the remaining 20% would require many 1000s of years to be removed and before we would return to the pre-industrial levels. Pep Canadell

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