The International Energy Agency has confirmed that global carbon dioxide emissions have decoupled from economic growth. The IEA reports that for the second year in a row, the world economy has grown while energy-related CO2 emissions — the primary cause of climate change — remained flat, thanks to energy efficiency and a big surge in renewables.
This decoupling is “unprecedented” and “huge” according to IEA chief Fatih Birol. The IEA explains that the only three previous times in the last four decades that emissions were flat or dropped (the early 1980s, 1992, and 2009) “were associated with global economic weakness.”
What happened? The IEA says its “data suggest that electricity generated by renewables played a critical role, having accounted for around 90% percent of new electricity generation in 2015.” Yes, a whopping nine out of 10 new power plants in 2015 were renewable — and five out of 10 were wind.
The IEA also credits “improvements in efficiency.” Efficiency has played a key role in decoupling both U.S. electricity sales and overall energy demand from U.S. economic growth, as I’ve discussed. Many other major countries have fuel efficiency and electricity efficiency efforts comparable (or even superior) to ours.
Emissions reductions by two biggest emitters — the U.S. and China — played a major role, the IEA notes. Our emissions fell 2 percent, and China’s 1.5 percent, “as coal use dropped for the second year in a row.”
We first reported this story back in December: “China’s Coal Cuts Are Driving A Plateau In Global Carbon Emissions.” Now the world’s most credible energy agency has confirmed the key role China is playing by rapidly decarbonizing both its industrial and electricity sectors in the last few years. “In 2015, coal generated less than 70% of Chinese electricity, ten percentage points less than four years ago (in 2011),” the IEA states. “Over the same period low-carbon sources jumped from 19% to 28%, with hydro and wind accounting for most of the increase.”
This important trend seems poised to continue, as China is redoubling its “War On Coal” with even stronger policies to speed its transition off the dirtiest fossil fuel, as we reported last month.
Decoupling of global CO2 emissions from economic growth “is yet another boost to the global fight against climate change,” said IEA’s Birol, “coming just a few months after the landmark COP21 agreement in Paris.” Indeed, when you combine China’s War on Coal with the commitments made by the other leading countries for COP21 and the ongoing cleantech revolution, it becomes increasingly clear that 2014–2015 marks a major inflection point in the CO2 emissions trend line — and may even represent a true plateau.