Early signs of climate progress as emissions stall for second year running

The battle to reduce global warming received a welcome boost today (16 March), with new data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) revealing that international energy-related emissions stalled for the second year running in 2015.

Global emissions produced from energy sourcing and consumption – the largest source of man-made emissions – stayed flat over the last 48 months at 32.1bn tonnes, with the IEA citing electricity produced from renewables as a ‘critical’ driver in the lack of growth.

“The new figures confirm last year’s surprising but welcome news, we now have seen two straight years of greenhouse gas emissions decoupling from economic growth,” IEA’s executive director Fatih Birol said. “Coming just a few months after the landmark COP21 agreement in Paris, this is yet another boost to the global fight against climate change.”

IEA data suggested that renewables accounted for around 90% of new electricity generation in 2015, with wind alone producing more than half of this percentage. The world’s two largest emitters, China and the US, both produced a decline in energy emissions, with low-carbon sources jumping from 19% to 28% in China as emissions fell by 1.5% in the country – just 0.5% less than the US decarbonisation movement.

Decoupling effect

While the decline from China and US made a sizable dent in global emissions, it was largely offset by economic development and fossil fuel reliance in emerging economies located in Asia and the Middle East. The growth in economies in these areas – which contributed to a 3% GDP increase – provides and interesting parallel to the world’s stalling emissions.

In the 40 years which IEA has been sourcing information on emissions, this marks the first time that the correlation between emissions and economic growth have been severed. According to the IEA, the early 1980s, 1992 and 2009 were the only periods where emissions stalled or fell, but all of these were associated with global economic downturn. 2015 marks the first time that emissions have stalled while economic growth has increased.

Research from the University of East Anglia actually stated that emissions might decline by more than 0.6% in 2015. But the decoupling of economies and emissions is a positive step towards a projected 2020 emissions peak.

Renewed hope

The findings signify the policies and progress that have been introduced in the wake of the legally-binding climate agreement produced at COP21. While businesses and innovators have pledged to play their parts in lowering emissions, it is refreshing to see that Governments are contributing to the low-carbon transition.

In the UK, energy minister Andrea Leadsom has promised that the UK will enshrine in law a long-term goal of reducing its carbon emissions to zero. This long-term goal may become dependent on Scotland’s “vibrant renewable sector” and “bold policy approaches“, which has been praised by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

Commenting on the findings, Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), said: “When the IEA said last year that global emissions had stalled whilst economic growth had continued, they understandably sounded a note of caution; was this a one-off, or the start of something major?

“The sense of excitement as they report similar findings this year therefore is palpable, because in essence they’re showing that combating climate change is perfectly compatible with continuing economic growth.

“Coming as it does on UK Budget day, one specific point from the IEA report is worth noting – and that is that the key factors keeping emissions down were policies that cut energy waste and increase use of renewables.” 

Matt Mace

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