Energy consumption and the level of economic activity are intimately linked; energy is critical to modern economies, necessary for infrastructure, industry, transport and houses. This means that, in general, when income increases, so does energy use, which is clear if we look at past trends. And if we don’t use renewable energy sources, then the rise in energy consumption will inevitably lead to more carbon dioxide emissions.
But it seems that the world’s efforts to halt climate change could finally be paying off since CO2 emissions from the energy sector appear to have stalled last year, according to a preliminary report from the International Energy Agency (IEA). If the data hold up, then this would mark the first time in 40 years that emissions have either remained unchanged or decreased in the absence of an economic crisis.
“This is both a very welcome surprise and a significant one,” IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol said in a statement. “It provides much-needed momentum to negotiators preparing to forge a climate deal in Paris in December: for the first time, greenhouse gas emissions are decoupling from economic growth.”
According to the IEA, global CO2 emissions were 32.3 billion tonnes in both 2014 and 2013, despite the fact that the global economy grew by 3% last year. The IEA has been gathering data on emissions for the past 40 years and within this time frame, there have only been three instances in which CO2 emissions either stalled or decreased compared with the year before and all of these were linked to global economic downturn. For example, a plateau was observed in 1992 after the former Soviet Union collapsed.
So to what can we attribute this apparent halt in global CO2 emissions? According to the IEA, a big part of it has to do with a shift in energy use trends in China and member countries of the Organization for the Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). For example, last year China witnessed an increase in the amount of energy produced from renewable sources, such as solar and wind, with a concomitant decrease in fossil fuel burning.
As pointed out by New Scientist, other factors that likely contributed include the warmer temperatures experienced last year, which result in less energy being used to heat homes, and low oil prices. When the cost of oil drops, companies preferentially use this as an energy source over coal since it releases fewer emissions per unit of energy produced.
Although these early data are encouraging, experts have warned that we should not use the findings as an excuse to become complacent or to cease efforts to curb emissions. Instead, decision-makers should use the finalized report, which will be released in June, to aid the creation of policy measures that will help nations reach climate goals without compromising economic growth.