China’s Coal Cuts Are Driving A Plateau In Global Carbon Emissions

CREDIT: shutterstock

PARIS, FRANCE — Today’s stunning news from Paris: Global CO2 emissions growth has halted in the last two years, while GDP growth continues. In fact, 2015 is headed toward the first drop in CO2 emissions during a period of economic growth.

The well-respected international Global Carbon Project announced Monday the key findings of their detailed survey of global carbon dioxide emissions. The group’s Nature Climate Change article, “Reaching peak emissions” concludes:

Rapid growth in global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and industry ceased in the past two years, despite continued economic growth. Decreased coal use in China was largely responsible, coupled with slower global growth in petroleum and faster growth in renewables.”

More specifically, “CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and industry grew +0.6% in 2014, and are projected to decline by 0.6% in 2015.”

Here is the key chart — a major contender for chart of the year:

Global Carbon Project graph

CREDIT: Global Carbon Project

“Time will tell whether this surprising interruption in emissions growth is transitory or a first step towards emissions stabilization,” the study points out.

The central point, I think, is that “China’s decreased coal use largely accounts for the break in global emissions growth in 2014 and 2015.” Remember, China was responsible for some 80 percent of the growth in global demand since 2000 — but it has completely reversed its strategy of coal-intensive growth, as we’ve been reporting since last November.

Indeed, Chinese coal consumption has begun a downward spiral, with a more than 4 percent drop expected this year alone, as I detailed Friday. China has been scaling back coal use by power plants as well as by some of China’s biggest industrial coal consumers: cement, steel, and iron.

“Beijing is also intentionally ratcheting up coal prices to make those energy-intensive sectors less competitive, as well as to make coal less competitive vis-à-vis renewables,” notes a new analysis of Chinese energy and climate policies from the Center for American Progress.

Coal use will continue to drop as China puts in place the commitments it announced in September. Besides embracing a cap-and-trade system, which will put further downward pressure on coal, China announced it will use what is called “green dispatch” system for its electric grid.

And it isn’t just coal. “We saw slower global growth in petroleum in 2014 and faster growth in renewables,” said Stanford’s Prof. Robert Jackson, lead author of the new Nature Climate Change article. “Wind and solar capacities saw record increases in capacity last year and are on track to be even higher in 2015.”

So when you combine China’s accelerated action with the commitments made by the other leading countries for the Paris climate talks and the ongoing cleantech revolution, it seems clear that 2014-2015 marks an inflection point in the CO2 emissions trend line — and could even represent a true plateau.