PARIS, FRANCE — A new study has found that global CO2 emissions have virtually halted and may even fall — ever so slightly — before the end of this year, an unexpected and welcome outcome during a time of sustained economic growth.
But don’t get too excited, warned the U.S., European and Australia researchers who authored the report. Speaking to reporters Monday from the floor of the Paris climate talks, they stopped short of declaring that the amount of carbon dioxide world economies release into the atmosphere each year has finally peaked.
“2015 is a bit anomalous,” said co-author Glen Peters, from the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway. Looking at the emission-reduction commitments countries made in advance of the UN summit, he added, “you wouldn’t expect a global peak until 2030 or later.”
The numbers, however, are intriguing. A data analysis led by the Tyndall Centre at the U.K.’s University of East Anglia found that emissions grew only 0.6 per cent in 2014 and are projected to fall 0.6 per cent this year. That would suggest zero growth over the most recent two-year period, compared to an average annual growth rate of 2.4 per cent between 2003 and 2014.
More unusual is that the halt in emissions isn’t happening during an economic downturn, such as what happened during the recent financial crisis, the dot-com bust in the early 2000s, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1990s. Instead, the pause is happening at a time when the global economy grew at least 3.4 per cent between 2012 and 2014 and is projected, according to the International Monetary Fund, to grow 3.1 per cent in 2015.
The tantalizing prospect that global economic growth may finally be decoupling from the rate countries are emitting greenhouse gases is reason enough for hopeful speculation. In a paper published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, the researchers posed two key questions: “What is causing the break and does it signal the beginning of a reversal in global emissions growth?”
The “what” is easier to answer. “Slower growth in emissions was attributed largely to a drop in coal consumption in China, with additional contributions from below-average growth in global demand for oil and natural gas and continuing growth in renewables,” the paper states.
China’s determination to improve urban air quality, combined with its sluggish economic growth, drove its reduction in coal use and a projected 3.9 per cent fall in CO2 emissions in 2015. The researchers called it a “substantial improvement” over the previous decade and in line with meeting the emissions-reduction pledge China submitted in the lead-up to Paris.
By putting less emphasis on steel manufacturing and construction and placing a 2020 cap on coal emissions, “China, at the moment, is shifting to this new normal,” said Peters. “It’s happening faster than we expected.”
But he warned that India could be following the same high-growth, high-carbon path that China started down in the 1990s, when its emissions were less than a quarter of what they are today. In 2014, for example, the rise in emissions out of India completely offset a big emissions drop achieved in the European Union.
“That is why India is a wildcard,” he said. “We just don’t know where India is going to go over the next 20 years.”
David Runnalls, a senior fellow with Canada’s Centre for International Governance Innovation, said leaders in India are smart enough to avoid getting trapped in the same “coal mess” that led China to become the world’s largest emitter of CO2 with 27 per cent of global emissions. By comparison, the U.S. sits in second place at 15 per cent.
The difference between China then and India now is that renewable technology costs have plunged and climate change has become a more urgent issue globally. India also has the third-largest scientific establishment in the world, much of it focused on cracking the nut on its dirty energy dilemma.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, meanwhile, is widely viewed as an enabler of clean energy technologies. On the opening day of the Paris summit, Modi launched an international solar alliance with over 120 countries, creating the foundation for what he called “the new economy of the new century.”
“India has this goal of producing 40 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2030,” Runnalls pointed out. “So you might see India at a bit of a tipping point as well.”
Even if global emissions haven’t peaked, there’s no disputing that 2015 is one for the history books. The year is expected to end as the hottest on record, and that’s in a century that has already had 14 record-hot years. This is also the year average global warming compared to pre-industrial times topped 1 degree C, and concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million — something that hasn’t happened for at least 800,000 years.
“Time will tell whether this surprising interruption in emissions growth is transitory or a first step towards emissions stabilization,” states the Nature study. “In either case, the trend is a welcome change from the historical coupling of CO2 emissions with economic growth and should be strengthened through efforts at the Paris (summit) and beyond.”
Climate scientist Michael Mann, director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, said the conclusions of the Nature study reinforce what he has been saying for some time.
“It’s difficult to overstate the significance of this development,” he said. “What it shows is that we are indeed turning the corner in the transition from a fossil fuel to renewable-driven global economy.
“But we need to turn the corner even faster. We need to put our foot on the accelerator.”
– This article is part of a series produced in partnership by the Toronto Star and Tides Canada to address a range of pressing climate issues in Canada leading up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, December 2015. Tides Canada is supporting this partnership to increase public awareness and dialogue around the impacts of climate change on Canada’s economy and communities. The Toronto Star has full editorial control and responsibility to ensure stories are rigorously edited in order to meet its editorial standards