2022’s Emissions Tell the Story of a Hot, Violent Year

An American Airlines plane lands at Logan International Airport, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, in Boston.

An American Airlines plane lands at Logan International Airport, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, in Boston.
Photo: Michael Dwyer (AP)

The world emitted more carbon dioxide last year compared to any other year on record, according to data released Thursday from the International Energy Agency. And while the growth of emissions was slower last year than it had been in past years—thanks to an explosion of renewable energy around the world during the energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine—the report finds that emissions from fossil fuels could have been even lower in 2022, had extreme heat not raised cooling needs around the world.

Energy-related emissions grew about 0.9% from 2021 to 2022, reaching a new high of 36.8 gigatons last year, the report explained. And though any CO2 record is depressing, last year’s growth was small compared to 2021’s emissions rebound, which was a more than 6% increase from 2020. The world’s emissions took a slight dip in 2020, when covid-19 lockdowns halted international travel. Once travel started up again, CO2 emissions rose pretty quickly the following year.

Despite the comparatively gentle rise of global CO2 emissions, there were several concerning energy trends highlighted in the report. Global CO2 emissions from natural gas dropped 1.6%, with an especially sharp drop in Europe as the continent weaned itself off Russian supply during the war in Ukraine. But emissions from coal grew by 1.6% as more countries have had to turn to this energy source to make up for the reduction in Russian gas to Europe.

Reliance on fossil fuel energy sources also increased thanks to extreme weather throughout 2022, the IEA’s analysis found. This past summer, natural gas use surpassed 40% in July and August in the U.S., and coal generation in China spiked in August. Before summer temperatures skyrocketed, both countries emissions for the first half of 2022 were actually lower than reported emissions for 2021.

Some of the slowdown in rising emissions, the IEA said, can be attributed to more adoption of green technology—think more solar panels and more electric vehicles on the road. Renewable energy met 90% of global growth in electricity demand last year. And although droughts were reported all over the world, hydro-generated power actually increased from 2021 to 2022. The IEA reported that, without those droughts, which caused hydropower generation to plummet, the world could have avoided even more emissions.

Though slow growth is better than what we’ve seen in previous years, our emissions are already too damn high.

“We can’t afford growth. We can’t afford stasis. It’s cuts or chaos for the planet,” Rob Jackson, a professor of earth system science at Stanford University and chairman of the Global Carbon Project, told the Associated Press. “Any year with higher coal emissions is a bad year for our health and for the Earth.”

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