Our hottest year on record, but there’s cause for hope on climate change

Paul YoungEnvironment, Uncategorized

It’s official: 2016 was the hottest year on record, not just globally but for New Zealand too.

NIWA released its annual climate summary on Monday with the headline that 2016 was New Zealand’s hottest year since reliable record-keeping began in 1909.

On top of the long-term warming trend, which has warmed New Zealand by about 1°C on average over the last 100 years, temperatures last year were boosted by exceptionally warm sea surface temperatures and more north and north-westerly winds than usual.

Annual rainfall was broadly similar to the pattern of change predicted as global temperatures increase: wet regions getting wetter (primarily in the west and south of the country) and dry regions getting dryer (primarily in the east and north). Drought in North Canterbury extended through 2016 into the longest on record before some eventual relief with rains in November. Now Northland is currently on the brink of drought conditions after an exceptionally dry December.

All of this sits in the context of another record-breaking hot year for the planet as a whole, as we reported last month. The first confirmation of the 2016 temperature record came a few days ago from the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, one of several independent research programmes monitoring global temperatures. Their analysis found global temperatures in 2016 were 1.3°C above the pre-industrial average – smashing the previous year’s record by around 0.2°C and coming alarmingly close to the 1.5°C target enshrined in the Paris Agreement.

There is no shortage of worrying news about climate change, but there are also reasons for hope when we look for them.

Carbon emissions plateau

You may not have heard it, but global emissions of carbon dioxide (the number one cause of climate change) have now pretty much flat-lined for several consecutive years. After rapid growth averaging over 3% per year through the 2000s, CO2 emissions barely increased in 2014 and didn’t increase at all in 2015 – the first time this has ever happened alongside continued economic growth. Emissions are projected to increase by just 0.2% in 2016, subject to uncertainty.

Source: Global Carbon Budget 2016

It’s certainly too early to celebrate or to claim that global emissions have peaked. But these figures show that the world has actually come a long way toward getting the climate change problem under control in the last few years. Putting global emissions on a downward trajectory is within reach, if we want it.

China’s coal growth has reversed

China is a huge part of this story. We’ve written before about the renewable energy revolution quietly taking place. Some remarkable new statistics help put this into perspective: in 2015, China on average installed more than one wind turbine and one rugby field of solar panels every hour of the year. Let that sink in.

China’s total CO2 emissions actually fell in 2015 by 0.7%, primarily due to a 3.6% drop in coal use. Many experts now believe that China’s coal use has peaked for good and that its total emissions will peak well before 2030 – the country’s conservative commitment under the Paris Agreement. Last week, China announced it will invest at least $360 billion USD in renewable energy by 2020. This roughly maintains the annual investment it made in 2015 and will ensure that China’s progress continues at pace (keep in mind that each dollar will be buying more renewable power as solar and wind prices continue to fall).

India set to smash its Paris targets

India has been in China’s shadow when it comes to renewable energy, and seen as more reluctant to take climate action, but a new draft national energy plan released by the Indian Government suggests that could change. The plan forecasts that the percentage of India’s electricity capacity from non-fossil fuel sources will nearly double in the next ten years, from 30% today to 57% in 2027.[1] Even more so than China, this would smash India’s current commitment under the Paris Agreement, which is to achieve just 40% of electricity capacity from non-fossil sources by 2030.

The plan also indicates that India won’t need any new coal plants beyond those already under construction. Those that are built risk being “largely stranded” and not actually used, according to an energy expert quoted by The Guardian. This just goes to show how fast the progress on renewable energy is happening.

Hey look some good stuff did happen last year

2016 saw many more hopeful developments:

Reality check

Here’s the reality check though: the world as a whole is still falling well short of the pace of action required to stop global warming below 2°C (let alone 1.5°C). If countries all fulfil the commitments they have made under the Paris Agreement, this is estimated to put us on track for around 2.7°C of warming by the century’s end. As we’ve seen, China and India are both on track to significantly outdo their commitments, which will narrow that gap. However, the opposite is true for several richer countries, including New Zealand, where our emissions are projected to continue growing in complete disconnect with our commitments to reduce them.

What is needed now is for more countries to step up their national commitments and – more importantly – their actions to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

As much as I’d like to, I can’t finish this piece without mentioning Trump. Even under the most optimistic take, the election of a climate change denier to the Whitehouse alongside Republican control of US Congress casts a dark shadow over progress on climate change at a critical time. How much his administration will be able to unwind US climate action, and what the effect will be of the US abdicating the leadership role it has played in the last few years, remains to be seen.

One thing is certain: the role for other countries to show principled leadership – and for citizens to push their leaders for stronger action – is more important than ever.


[1] Installed capacity is different from how much electricity is actually generated. Wind and solar generally have a lower average utilisation rate (capacity factor) than fossil fuel and nuclear power, so the percentage of India’s electricity generated from non-fossil sources will be somewhat lower than 57% in 2027.


Our hottest year on record, but there’s cause for hope on climate change was last modified: February 8th, 2017 by Paul Young
About the Author

Paul Young

Paul Young joined the Morgan Foundation in 2015. Paul has an academic background in physics and maths, and graduated with a Master's degree from University of Otago where he researched ocean wave power. He is one of the founders of Generation Zero - a Kiwi youth organisation that advocates for action on climate change. He is passionate about the role New Zealand can play in leading the way to a thriving zero carbon future. Paul conducts research for the Morgan Foundation on climate change and other issues, and writes the occasional blog post.