The international energy agency reported last Monday that global energy-related greenhouse emissions rose 1.7 percent in 2018. The robust global economy spiked demand for energy, which increased 2.3 percent, and fossil fuels met most of that demand. Global coal use ticked up 0.7 percent, almost entirely in China and India. In the United States, oil and natural gas consumption increased. The world must find a way to grow without supercharging greenhouse emissions.
Another major contributing factor to the increase in energy demand was an uptick in heating and air conditioning in response to record-breaking temperature anomalies in some areas. This suggests that global warming will create a vicious cycle in which temperature extremes encourage greater use of heating oil, electricity and other fuels to control interior environmental conditions. If greater use of heating and air conditioning results in more greenhouse emissions, the long-term need for artificial temperature regulation will only increase.
Breaking the link between economic growth and greenhouse emissions will require more effort than world governments are applying. That starts with the United States, which is the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases. Republican views on climate change run from rank denial — President Donald Trump — to well-meaning timidity — Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who just released a welcome but far-from-comprehensive plan to boost clean-energy research. Democrats agree on the problem but are struggling to resist an unhelpful far-left takeover of climate policy. More importantly, they cannot legislate without greater GOP buy-in.
But the time in which global warming could be construed as mainly a challenge for the big Western economies is long past. More than any others, China and India hold the climate's future in their hands. China, the world's largest current greenhouse-gas emitter, generates four times as much coal-fired electricity as the United States does, and a major industrial group just proposed hiking that by a third. There is also evidence that building has resumed on coal-fired power plants on which the Chinese government had previously halted construction. India, meanwhile, is also boosting coal consumption, and it lacks China's commitment to a vast increase in renewables. China and India face huge challenges in raising their millions out of poverty. But it would be foolhardy to do so at the expense of future generations' well-being.
Now would be the time for a global leader to pressure these governments to take the long view. But even if the U.S. president cared to do so, the United States lacks the moral authority because the federal government is doing far too little to cut emissions at home. The Paris agreement was supposed to provide a forum in which to pressure big emitters to clean up their act, but the United States has renounced the global accord.
There is not much time left to change this picture.
This editorial first appeared in The Washington Post.