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Global carbon dioxide emissions hit a record high in 2023

Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels reached an unprecedented level in 2023, according to an international team of experts. The researchers said the continued rise in emissions from the burning of oil, coal, and natural gas is impeding progress to limit global warming.

The Global Carbon Budget assessment serves as an annual health check for Earth’s carbon cycle. The analysis quantifies the carbon added to the atmosphere through fossil fuel combustion and land-use changes, alongside the carbon sequestered by terrestrial and marine ecosystems. 

Global carbon dioxide from fossil fuels 

The preliminary analysis for 2023 unveiled a 1.1 percent increase in fossil fuel emissions over 2022, totaling 36.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. 

When accounting for additional sources like deforestation and the severe wildfire season in Canada, the total emissions for 2023 were estimated at 40.9 billion metric tons. According to the analysis, both 2022 and 2023 saw record increases in carbon dioxide from fossil fuels.

Atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide 

Ben Poulter, a co-author of the report and a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, expressed concern over the trajectory of emissions, emphasizing that they are moving in the opposite direction needed to mitigate global warming. 

Since the dawn of the industrial era in 1750, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has surged from approximately 278 parts per million to 420 parts per million in 2023, fueling a significant increase in Earth’s surface temperature. 

Hottest year on record

The year 2023 set a new record as the hottest year, with average temperatures reaching 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.1 degrees Fahrenheit) above the mid-20th-century baseline, predominantly due to the accumulation of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

The team utilized NASA’s Goddard Earth Observing System (GEOS) to create visualizations that map carbon emissions and absorption across the globe, integrating data on vegetation, human population density, and various infrastructural elements. 

Natural carbon sinks

“Amazingly, the ocean and land continue to absorb about half of the carbon we emit,” said Poulter. “Only about 44 percent of emissions stay in the atmosphere each year, slowing the rate of climate change, but causing ocean acidification and altering how land ecosystems function.”

Concerns are mounting over the enduring capacity of natural carbon sinks. A study led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2023 uncovered signs that the ocean’s carbon storage capability is waning, potentially due to its prolonged role in absorbing carbon dioxide, along with alterations in global ocean circulation affecting deep-sea carbon sequestration.

The Global Carbon Budget 

The Global Carbon Budget incorporates diverse data sources, including government and energy agency emissions inventories and satellite data from NASA’s OCO-2 instrument, to construct an exhaustive overview of the global carbon cycle. 

While emissions have shown signs of decline in regions such as Europe and the United States, a global perspective reveals an overall rise, with significant increases noted in India and China.

The Paris Agreement 

The implications of this trend are stark in the context of the Paris Agreement, established in December 2015. The goal of this international treaty is to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. 

At the current rate of emissions, the analysis suggests a 50 percent chance of surpassing the 1.5°C threshold within approximately seven years.

Greenhouse gas emissions data

In response to these challenges, NASA and other U.S. federal agencies continue to collect and disseminate greenhouse gas emissions data, contributing to the establishment of the U.S. Greenhouse Gas Center. 

This multi-agency initiative aims to consolidate observational and model-based information, providing a comprehensive resource for policymakers and decision-makers to navigate the complexities of climate change mitigation.

Transitioning away from fossil fuels 

Glen Peters is an expert in the Centre for International Climate Research (CICERO) in Norway. Just before the Global Carbon Budget report was released in December, Peters commented on the lack of significant progress in transitioning to clean energy. He recalled that scientists were optimistic in 2015, hoping that emission levels might peak.

“Yet, here we are again, with a new peak in 2022, and yet another peak expected again in 2023,” said Peters. “My concern is that we are doing half the job, growing clean energy, and not doing the other half of the job, transitioning away from fossil fuels.”

Video Credit: NASA Earth Observatory 


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