Carbon Emissions: Slow-Down In 2015

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Carbon Emissions: Slow-Down In 2015, But Likely To Peak Yet!

The background

Worldwide carbon emissions from fossil fuels grew very little in 2014 and might even fall this year despite robust global economic growth over the past two years.

Global Carbon Project has released a recent report which finds that those fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide grew by only 0.6 percent in 2014, breaking with the fast emissions growth of 2-3 percent per year since the early 2000s.

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Quite unexpectedly, emissions are projected to decline slightly in 2015 with a continuation of global economic growth above 3 percent in Gross Domestic Product.

It is notable this is the first two-year period in a multi-decade record where the global economy shows clear signs of decoupling from fossil fuel emissions.  In the past, every single break or decline in the growth of carbon emissions was directly correlated with a downturn in the global or regional economy.  It is different this time.

Still, it is not probable that 2015 is the much-sought-after global peak in emissions which will lead us down the decarbonization path required to stabilise the climate.

Future Earth/Global Carbon Project

What caused it?        

The main cause of this unexpected lack of growth in emissions is due to the slowdown in the production and consumption of coal-based energy in China in 2014, followed by a decline in 2015.

This has taken China’s emissions growth from close to double digits during the past decade to an extraordinary low of 1.2 percent growth in 2014 and an unexpected decline by about 4 percent projected for 2015.

Although China is only responsible for 27 percent of global emissions, it has dominated the growth in global emissions since the early 2000s.  Hence, a slowdown in China’s emissions has an immediate global impact.  Besides this main issue, we have to consider as well emissions from industrialised economies, including Australia, Europe and the United States, have declined by 1.3 percent per year on average over the past decade, partially supported by extraordinary growth of renewable energy sources.

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It is worth noting that in the past every time emissions have fallen; it has been associated with economic recession.

CSIRO/Global Carbon Project

Have we reached global peak emissions?

The answer is – most likely not. We have to consider the key uncertainty in answering this question is the future of coal in China.  But China is endeavouring to achieve peak carbon consumption as early as possible (and emissions by 2030), and to phase out the dirtiest types of coal from the nation’s energy mix.  This is largely in response to a pollution crisis affecting many of its large urban areas.  It is quite probable that growth in coal emissions in China will not resume any time soon, and certainly not at the fast pace of the previous decade.

This assessment is based on the remarkable growth in non-fossil fuel energy sources such as hydro, nuclear and renewable.  Note that these accounted for more than half of the growth in new energy in 2014, with a very similar mix during the first three-quarters of this year.  If such structural changes continued, it could bring China’s peak emissions much earlier than anyone is anticipating and certainly well before 2030.

Though it may not be quite probable that we have reached global peak emissions, it is very likely that 2015 marks a new era of slower growth in fossil fuel emissions. We can take this as the first sign of a looming peak not very far-off.

Where from here?

Recent modelling analyses of post-2020 pledges by over 180 countries to reduce emissions to 2030 (the so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) show that peak emissions is not to come any time soon.  Under the pledges made, global emissions continue to rise to 2030.  This might well be the future.

But models used for such analysis were not that different from those that completely missed the very rapid rise of the Chinese economy in the decade of 2000 and perhaps now its rapid decarbonisation.

However, China is not the only player in this game. Industrialised countries including China, accounting for half of global fossil fuel emissions, have pledged to reduce or stabilise emissions absolutely by 2030.

We have to note that the other half belongs to less-developed nations whose pledges do not include absolute emission reductions but departures from business-as-usual scenarios (meaning emissions can increase, but not as fast).  This emphasises the disproportionate importance of international climate finances required to help that “other” half of the emissions to peak and join the decline of the rest.

It is just that 2015 has been an extraordinary year, and not just because of China. Emissions from Australia, Europe, Japan and Russia have all come down as part of  a longer or more recent trends.  Coming to the other energy sources, installed wind capacity reached 51 giga-watts in 2014, an amount greater than the total global wind capacity just a decade ago.  Solar capacity is 50 times bigger than it was ten years ago.

And emissions from land-use change, albeit with large uncertainties and high emissions from Indonesian fires this year, have been on a declining trend for over a decade.  These trends are not stopping here.  Yet the current emissions path is not consistent with stabilising the climate at a level below 2℃ global warming.

If we maintain the level of 2015 emissions, the remaining carbon budget before setting the earth on a path that exceeds 2℃ is less than 30 years away, unless we bet on unproven negative emissions technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere later in the century.

Again, 2015 is a historic year to galvanise further action.  The trends in emissions are favourable, and countries have the opportunity to negotiate significantly higher levels of ambition to decouple economic growth from emissions.

Source: The Conversation

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