Paul Sweeney: It is not often that we get good news on climate change, but a report from the International Energy Agency is positive and interesting. It found that Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) – the largest source of man-made greenhouse gas emissions – has remained flat for the two years in a row.
The IEA is an independent international organisation “which works to ensure reliable, affordable and clean energy for its 29 member countries and beyond.” Ireland was a founder member.
Last year’s news that greenhouse gas emissions were decoupling from economic growth was a real surprise. That the trend is continuing is excellent news.
There is a view that the developed world has reached “peak stuff” and we are no longer consuming increasing amounts of material. James Wickham has pointed out that we may have reached “peak car” too – that is, that car sales are finally in decline worldwide. This has enormous implications for many industries, for workers, for investment in public transport, for climate change and policy makers.
Global emissions of carbon dioxide stood at 32.1 billion tonnes in 2015, having remained flat since 2013.
Here is the growth in such pollution since 1975:
Table: World energy-related CO2 emissions
The IEA preliminary data suggest that electricity generated by renewables played a critical role, having accounted for around 90% of new electricity generation in 2015; wind alone produced more than half of new electricity generation. At the same time world growth was over 3 percent. Emissions have stabilised in the past when growth is flat.
“In the more than 40 years in which the IEA has been providing information on CO2 emissions, there have been only four periods in which emissions stood still or fell compared to the previous year. Three of those – the early 1980s, 1992 and 2009 – were associated with global economic weakness,” the IEA says.
However, the recent stall in emissions comes while there was economic growth: according to the International Monetary Fund, “global GDP grew by 3.4% in 2014 and 3.1% in 2015.”
The Energy Agency says that the two largest pollutors, China and the United States, saw a decline in energy-related CO2 in 2015. In China, emissions declined by 1.5%, as coal use dropped for the second year in a row.
In 2015, coal generated less than 70% of Chinese electricity, ten percentage points less than in 2011. A lot of coal but the trend is positive. IEA found that over the same period, low-carbon sources increased substantially from 19% to 28%. Of this increase, hydro and wind made up most of the it.
In the United States, emissions declined by 2%, as a large switch from coal to natural gas use in electricity generation took place.
There are huge subsidies for renewables in many countries which are boosting investment, but they are also boosting research and innovation and in time, these subsidies can be scaled down as technology improves to provide market economic returns for investors.
That renewables are working in driving down emissions is good news, provided this positive trend with the decoupling from growth remains.
Paul Sweeney is Chair of TASC's Economists' Network