As climate negotiators from around the world meet in Poland this week and next to figure out how to keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, they are hearing some discouraging news: Emissions of the biggest pollutant, carbon dioxide, are going up.
For three years — 2014 through 2016 — the amount of atmospheric CO2 had leveled off. But it started to climb again in 2017, and is still rising.
"Last year, we thought, was a blip — but it isn't," says Rob Jackson, a climate scientist at Stanford University in California.
The CO2 increase in 2017 over the previous year was 1.6 percent, and in 2018 it's looking like emissions will have grown a further 2.7 percent. With the economy strong throughout most of the world, 2019 looks to be headed in the same direction, in terms of carbon emissions.
The recent slowdown in emissions and the subsequent uptick are both largely the result of what's been happening in China.
"Their economy has been slowing a bit," says Jackson, which is one reason global emissions stalled (China is the largest emitter of CO2 in the world). But now, says Jackson, "the government is trying to boost growth, and they're green-lighting some coal projects that had been on hold."
India is also using a lot more coal as the government tries to bring electricity to millions of residents who don't have it. The country's emissions of CO2 have increased, on average, by 4.7 percent a year since 2000.
Writing in the journal Environmental Research Letters, Jackson notes that Americans are using way less coal now than they used to. But like most other people in the world, they're using a lot more of another kind of fossil fuel: petroleum.
"It's cheap gasoline," says Jackson. "We're buying bigger cars and we're driving more miles per vehicle." Jackson also notes that emissions from air travel recently have been growing about five percent a year.
Another hurdle, reported in the journal Nature this week, is that China is cleaning up its air pollution. That sounds great for pollution-weary Chinese citizens. But climatologists point out that some of that air pollution had actually been cooling the atmosphere, by blocking out solar radiation. Ironically, less air pollution from China could mean more warming for the Earth.
Still, some climate experts meeting in Poland have been eager to point to successes rather than a looming carbon apocalypse.
For example, take a look at clean energy growth – particularly solar and wind power, says Corinne Le Quéré, from the University of East Anglia, in Great Britain.
"There has been investment by governments and by businesses in wind and solar energy, and these investments have driven down the costs," she says. In some places, the cost of building new solar plants or wind generators is competitive with new coal plants.
Still, even as solar and wind power grow, these forms of energy are often meeting additional demand for electricity in growing economies, rather than putting old coal-fired plants out of business. So they're not necessarily reducing CO2 emissions.
Le Quéré acknowledges that renewable energy is far from replacing fossil fuels.
And negotiators in Poland just got a rude reminder this week of how hard it can be to get people to kick the fossil-fuel habit without a ready alternative: In France, a proposed tax on diesel fuel and gasoline that was aimed at cutting consumption has caused widespread rioting over the past several days. The French government quickly put that tax idea on ice.
The problem there, Le Quéré says, was that the French government didn't do a good job of preparing its citizens.
"In order to implement climate action," she says, "one has to think about how it's going to feel like from the customers' perspective — people who need to transport themselves, to go to work. What are the alternative options that are available for them? Everybody needs some warning about what is going to happen."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
All this week, we've been looking at the life and legacy of President George Herbert Walker Bush - his legacy both on domestic issues here in the U.S. and how he projected American power abroad.
Today, we zoom in on a very specific moment in his presidency - the first few months of 1991. The U.S. had begun its military offensive to push Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait. And on February 15, 1991, Bush gave a speech that would later be broadcast directly to Iraqis.
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GEORGE BUSH: And there's another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.
KELLY: A clear call for an uprising against Saddam. And inside Iraq, it was understood that such an uprising would be supported by American military might.
We're going to unpack what played out in the months that followed with someone who was there, Joost Hiltermann, who now is the Middle East and North Africa director for the International Crisis Group. Joost Hiltermann, welcome.
JOOST HILTERMANN: Thank you very much.
KELLY: So let's go straight to how Bush's words were received by Iraqis. What was the reaction to that clear call we just heard? Rise up. You can topple Saddam yourself.
HILTERMANN: Well, people rose up. And the first to rise up were Iraqi soldiers returning from Kuwait who mutinied against Saddam and started an uprising in the largely Shia south. And then Kurds in the north similarly decided that enough was enough, and this was an opportunity because they'd heard President Bush say, or suggest anyway, that they would get American support.
KELLY: How much traction did these rebellions ever get?
HILTERMANN: Well, they were pretty massive. And certainly, among the population, it involved a lot of people and engulfed 14 out of 18 governorates, so it was really extensive. Only Baghdad and the surrounding areas were relatively insulated from this. But even inside Baghdad, there were some attempts at rising up because this was a big Shia slum.
But, of course, once the regime turned its guns on the uprising, there was mass panic because people were not very well armed, and they did not get American support. And so they fled. And many Shia fled into Iran and Saudi Arabia. And many Kurds fled into Iran and into Turkey, if Turkey let them.
KELLY: Now, the U.S. campaign, as you know, ended up ending sooner than many thought it would. The actual ground invasion only lasted about a hundred hours. When did Iraqis realize the U.S. was not coming to the rescue?
HILTERMANN: Well, they realized it when Saddam turned tanks and helicopters on them. The United States and Iraq came to an agreement whereby Iraq was not allowed to fly its aircraft but was allowed to use its helicopters for humanitarian purposes.
But, of course, Iraq then used these helicopters to fight the uprisings in the north and the south and suppress them effectively. And so they said, well, wait a minute. Here we are. We are fighting. We're doing what George Bush has said we should do, and nobody's coming to our aid.
KELLY: The U.S. did establish a no-fly zone over the northern part of the country to protect Kurds who were rebelling. How successful was it?
HILTERMANN: Well, it was successful. But keep in mind that this was after the uprising in the north had already been crushed. But it allowed the Kurds to come back. And that was key because in 1991, the Kurds were able to, essentially, establish self-rule in those areas thanks to coalition protection. And that was partly due to the no-fly zone and partly due to the safe area that the coalition set up in the north.
And then Saddam's troops unilaterally withdrew a few months later, figuring that it wasn't worth the fight.
KELLY: How did George H.W. Bush defend this, because there was massive criticism at the time in '91, not just from Iraq, but here in the U.S., of people saying, hey, human rights are a pillar of U.S. foreign policy?
HILTERMANN: Well, he took a strategic point of view, which was, first of all, he had put together a coalition of countries that were fighting this Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait and in Iraq. And he said that if he were to go further and go into Baghdad and remove the regime, he would lose his allies because that's not what they had agreed to.
KELLY: He was making a tactical calculation. But how did he defend the morality of this decision?
HILTERMANN: Well, he claimed that he had never actually said that he would support any popular uprising. He may have admitted that he called on people to throw off the yoke of Saddam Hussein but not that he would send American troops to protect them.
KELLY: Joost Hiltermann - he is Middle East and North Africa director for the International Crisis Group. Mr. Hiltermann, thank you.
HILTERMANN: My pleasure. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.