Review Article | Published:

Persistent growth of CO2 emissions and implications for reaching climate targets

Nature Geoscience volume 7, pages 709715 (2014) | Download Citation

Abstract

Efforts to limit climate change below a given temperature level require that global emissions of CO2 cumulated over time remain below a limited quota. This quota varies depending on the temperature level, the desired probability of staying below this level and the contributions of other gases. In spite of this restriction, global emissions of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion and cement production have continued to grow by 2.5% per year on average over the past decade. Two thirds of the CO2 emission quota consistent with a 2 °C temperature limit has already been used, and the total quota will likely be exhausted in a further 30 years at the 2014 emissions rates. We show that CO2 emissions track the high end of the latest generation of emissions scenarios, due to lower than anticipated carbon intensity improvements of emerging economies and higher global gross domestic product growth. In the absence of more stringent mitigation, these trends are set to continue and further reduce the remaining quota until the onset of a potential new climate agreement in 2020. Breaking current emission trends in the short term is key to retaining credible climate targets within a rapidly diminishing emission quota.

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Acknowledgements

P.F. was supported by the European Commission's 7th Framework Programme (EU/FP7) under Grant Agreements 282672 (EMBRACE) and 603864 (HELIX). G.P.P. and R.M.A. were supported by the Norwegian Research Council (236296). J.G.C. acknowledges the support from the Australian Climate Change Science Program. C.L.Q. was supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)'s International Opportunities Fund (project NE/103002X/1) and EU/FP7 project 283080 (GEOCarbon). This work is a collaborative effort of the Global Carbon Project (http://www.globalcarbonproject.org).

Author information

Affiliations

  1. College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4QF, UK

    • P. Friedlingstein
  2. Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO), PO Box 1129 Blindern, 0318 Oslo, Norway

    • R. M. Andrew
    •  & G. P. Peters
  3. Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science, ETH Zurich, CH-8092 Zurich, Switzerland

    • J. Rogelj
    •  & R. Knutti
  4. Energy Program, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria

    • J. Rogelj
  5. Global Carbon Project, CSIRO Ocean and Atmospheric Flagship, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia

    • J. G. Canadell
  6. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), PO Box 601203, 14412 Potsdam, Germany

    • G. Luderer
  7. Climate Change Institute, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia

    • M. R. Raupach
  8. Climate Analytics, 10969 Berlin, Germany

    • M. Schaeffer
  9. Environmental Systems Analysis Group, Wageningen University, PO Box 47, 6700 AA Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • M. Schaeffer
  10. PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, PO Box 303, 3720 AH Bilthoven, The Netherlands

    • D. P. van Vuuren
  11. Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University, Budapestlaan 4, 3584 CD Utrecht, The Netherlands

    • D. P. van Vuuren
  12. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia, Norwich Research Park, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK

    • C. Le Quéré

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Contributions

P.F., G.P.P., J.G.C., J.R. and C.L.Q. designed the study. P.F. coordinated the conception and writing of the paper. R.M.A. and G.P.P. provided data and analysis on historical and near-term projections of emissions, GDP and carbon intensity. M.S. provided all data on cumulative emission budgets compatible with warming levels from the IPCC WGII scenarios database. J.R. and G.L. coordinated the assessment of trade-offs in delayed action scenarios. R.M.A. produced Figs 1 and 2. J.R. produced Figs 3 and 4. All authors contributed to the writing of the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to P. Friedlingstein.

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    Supplementary Information

    Cumulative budgets and uncertainty

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2248