Climate

Record First: Global CO2 Emissions Went Flat In 2014 While The Economy Grew

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Shanghai waterfront skyline with solar panels. China's push to replace coal with cleaner energy is a key reason the country (and the world) decoupled CO2 growth from GDP growth

Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions flatlined globally in 2014, while the world economy grew. The International Energy Agency reports that this marks “the first time in 40 years in which there was a halt or reduction in emissions of the greenhouse gas that was not tied to an economic downturn.”

The IEA attributes this remarkable occurrence to “changing patterns of energy consumption in China and OECD countries.” As we reported last month, China cut its coal consumption 2.9 percent in 2014, the first drop this century. China is aggressively embracing energy efficiency, expanding clean energy, and shuttering the dirtiest power plants to meet its planned 2020 (or sooner) peak in coal use. As a result, Chinese CO2 emissions dropped 1 percent in 2014 even as their economy grew by 7.4 percent.

At the same time, the Financial Times points out “In the past five years, OECD countries’ economies grew nearly 7 percent while their emissions fell 4 percent, the IEA has found.” A big part of that is the United States, where fuel economy standards have reversed oil consumption trends — and renewable energy, efficiency, and natural gas have cut U.S. coal consumption.

All this “provides much-needed momentum to negotiators preparing to forge a global climate deal in Paris in December,” explained IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol, who was just named the next IEA Executive Director. “For the first time, greenhouse gas emissions are decoupling from economic growth.”

CO2vsGDP

CREDIT: IEA, Financial Times

The IEA notes that in 40 years of CO2 data collection, the three previous times emissions have flatlined or dropped from the prior year “all were associated with global economic weakness: the early 1980’s [due to the oil shock and U.S. recession]; 1992 and 2009.”

Remember the pre-Paris pledges we already have: China to peak in CO2 emission by 2030 (or, likely, sooner), EU to cut total emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and U.S. “to cut net greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.” That means there is a very real prospect for a game-changing global deal coming out of Paris this year.

Such a deal would not will “not get us onto the 2°C pathway,” as Christiana Figueres, the top UN climate official, and others have explained. But it would get us off the catastrophic 6°C path and lead to a permanent decoupling of GDP and CO2.

And that would give the next generation a realistic chance at coming close to a 2°C path in the 2020s and 2030s. That’s when stronger action will become more viable as it becomes harder to deny the painful reality of just how dire our situation is — and as the sped-up deployment of clean energy required for countries to meet Paris commitments make achieving 2°C even more super-cheap.