A study published in the Environmental Research Letters has revealed there is much work to do in order to reduce net carbon emissions to zero by 2050, with the new findings outlining governments, industry bodies and individuals need to do much more to reach the targets by the desired date.

Despite a temporary reprieve in carbon emissions brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, experts believe that the previous upward trajectory seen pre-pandemic will return, unless swift and severe action is taken against greenhouse gas production.

The research, conducted by the UNSW Sydney and a further 29 researchers across six continents, found that more greenhouse gases were produced in 2018 than any previous year, despite more than 20 countries reducing their carbon emissions since 2000. Global greenhouse gas emissions increased by a total of 11 percent from 2010 to 2018.

The researchers show that road transport, meat consumption and a global trend towards expanding floor spaces were the main contributors of greenhouse gas increases, while industry, agriculture and the energy systems continued to account for a substantial slab of the carbon emission total.

It has caused a rethink as to how governments, producers of emissions and individuals may approach the effort to reduce carbon emissions. The research believes that extreme measures to reduce emissions for governments would be to legislate the phasing-out of fossil fuels and support renewable energy, tax carbon and over-consumption, for producers to follow science-based target reductions of Scope 2 and Scope 3 emissions, adopt industrial ecology/circular economy principles and achieve maximum energy and material efficiency, and for individuals to opt for public transport, adopt an 80 percent plant-based diet, and switch to 100 percent renewable electricity or install solar on own home.

Professor Tommy Wiedmann from the UNSW’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering says the efforts carried out by governments across the world is not doing enough to slow the production of greenhouse gases.

“This is despite the fact there are more than 20 countries that have reduced their emissions. It’s when you take this bird’s eye view of the total emissions that you see that those reductions barely make a difference,” he says in an interview with the UNSW’s media arm.

Wiedmann says that while the changes have slowed the curve, it has not decreased production in emissions.

“The results are quite sobering, we just haven’t been able to bend the curve. Yes, we have slowed the growth of emissions a bit when compared to the decade leading up to 2010, but if we want to meet the Paris Agreement target by 2050, then we have to get emissions down really quickly.”

Australia has had one of the steepest rises in floor space per person in the time period examined. Wiedmann says increased floor space equals further emissions.

“Looking at the trend towards larger houses in Australia, we’re seeing people spend more of their time indoors and that drives up energy demand because a larger house needs more cooling or heating,” he says.

“You need to fill that house with furniture, with furnishings, with appliances, and so the general level of material consumption is also driving up and it goes hand in hand with greater emissions.

“Of the five sectors that we looked at, buildings were the smallest ones with 6 percent globally of total emissions. But if you count the electricity used in buildings for heating, cooling, lighting, and allocate this to buildings, then the share goes up to 17 percent.”

Wiedmann says that in order to meet the targets set by the Paris Agreement, the developed world must limit its consumption and relax its pursuit of affluence.

“Some things will have to change,” he says. 

“This doesn’t mean we have to go back to the stone age, but we need to work on development that respects ecological limits and leads to more equity in the world.