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Global carbon emissions are on their way back up

Chinese coal-fired plant from 2015 with lots of emissions. The country has made efforts to lower its emissions since then
Smoke billows from a coal-fired generator at a steel factory in Hebei, China, in 2015. Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

A new International Energy Agency report finds that worldwide carbon dioxide emissions from energy — which are the lion's share of global emissions — ticked upward by 1.4% in 2017 after a three-year plateau.

Why it matters: The findings underscore the immense challenge of reigning in heat-trapping emissions in an increasingly energy-hungry world. Carbon dioxide output is on pace to eventually bring about global warming levels that blow past the targets of the Paris climate agreement.

What's happening now: Emissions rose despite the expansion of solar and wind power, and displacement of coal by natural gas and renewables in some markets.

  • "The increase in carbon emissions, equivalent to the emissions of 170 million additional cars, was the result of robust global economic growth of 3.7%, lower fossil-fuel prices and weaker energy efficiency efforts," the report states.

The big picture: The agency estimates that global energy demand increased by 2.1% last year, well above by the 2016 rate, with 40% of that growth coming from China and India alone.

  • Fossil fuels met over two-thirds of that additional worldwide energy need.
  • Demand for coal, the most carbon-intensive fuel, rose by about 1% after two years of declines. However, renewables, natural gas, nuclear and oil all grew more robustly.

The context: The IEA data is the second major report to show that the multi-year hiatus in emissions increases has ended. A recent study called Global Carbon Budget reached a similar conclusion, finding that global emissions from fossil fuels and industry grew by 1.5% last year.

Quoted: "The significant growth in global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2017 tells us that current efforts to combat climate change are far from sufficient," IEA head Fatih Birol said in a statement.

  • Asian nations provided the bulk of the emissions growth, while some major countries including the U.S., U.K., Mexico and Japan saw declines, IEA said.

Yes, but: The report nonetheless shows how the global economy is becoming less carbon-intensive. The economy in China, by far the world's largest emitter, grew by almost 7% last year but it's emissions grew by just 1.7% "thanks to continued renewables deployment and faster coal-to-gas switching," IEA said.

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