Somewhat good news for the planet: Global carbon dioxide emissions are set to grow less than 1% this year, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency. The rise of renewable energy and electric vehicles are helping slowly bend the emissions curve, but there's still a lot of work to do.
In actual numbers, carbon dioxide emissions are projected to increase by 300 million tons in 2022 to a grand total of 33.8 billion tons. That growth is a lot less than 2021, when they climbed nearly 2 billion tons. (Last year's rapid rise in emissions was due in part to the global economic recovery following pandemic lockdowns.)
The report credits this year's increase in emissions to power generation and the aviation sector, as travel continues to rise to pre-pandemic levels. Russia's invasion of Ukraine is also making natural gas more expensive. That's impacting the European Union's energy security, and the bloc and other countries are turning to coal as a cheaper (but dirtier) alternative. The IEA reported that coal use will rise 2% this year, resulting in 200 million more tons of carbon ending up in the atmosphere.
But this uptick in emissions tied to coal use is "considerably outweighed by the expansion of renewables." A total of 700 terawatt-hours of renewable generation came online in 2022, a record increase. The IEA said that offset 600 million tons of carbon pollution, an amount that's roughly on par with Canada's annual emissions.
The group forecast that the world is on track for "consistent improvement" when it comes to transitioning to clean energy and that last year's big emissions increase was a COVID-19-related blip. IEA executive director Fatih Birol said in a statement that "policy actions by governments are driving real structural changes in the energy economy. Those changes are set to accelerate thanks to the major clean energy policy plans that have advanced around the world in recent months."
The IEA highlighted the Inflation Reduction Act as one of a number of government policies that could transform how electricity is generated. Venture capital is also flowing toward climate solutions that could further speed up decarbonization in other sectors.
Some regions are doing better than others and are poised to make greater progress in the coming years. The EU is actually on track to see its carbon emissions fall this year, despite the increase in coal use. The IEA expects that to be a temporary uptick and that 50 gigawatts of renewable projects expected to come online in 2023 will help put coal on the decline again. China's emissions are set to stay flat, in part due to weaker economic growth and deployment of renewables (though this summer's hydropower-killing drought hurt zero-carbon energy generation).
It's not all good news, though. Oil-related emissions grew more than any other fossil fuel sector, in part because many countries lifted travel restrictions and commuters returned to the road. Nearly three-quarters of this increase is due to aviation, specifically international travel. And with sustainable aviation fuel still far on the horizon, that sector's path to decarbonization remains out of reach.
While smaller growth in emissions is a step in the right direction, the world ultimately needs emissions to fall rapidly to keep the Paris Agreement's targets in reach. Global carbon emissions need to drop 55% by 2030 to ensure the world has a decent shot at limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Blowing past that target will put millions more people at risk of facing climate change-fueled disasters. The modest increase in carbon pollution this year means the amount that the world will need to cut in subsequent years this decade will be that much steeper.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Fatih Birol's name. This story was updated on Oct. 19, 2022.