Emissions flat for third year running as economy boom continues

The decoupling trend between economic activity and emissions continued for a third straight year, after the International Energy Agency (IEA) revealed that global energy-related carbon emissions remained flat in 2016.

Global emissions from energy production remained at 32.1Gt in 2016, the same as the previous two years, as a growing deployment of renewable power generation and national switches from coal to natural gas balanced emissions during a year of economic growth, which grew by 3.1%.

“These three years of flat emissions in a growing global economy signal an emerging trend and that is certainly a cause for optimism, even if it is too soon to say that global emissions have definitely peaked,” IEA’s executive director Dr Fatih Birol said.

“They are also a sign that market dynamics and technological improvements matter. This is especially true in the United States, where abundant shale gas supplies have become a cheap power source.”

Declines in CO2 emissions in the US and China, the world’s two-largest energy users and emitters, was coupled with stable emissions in Europe. These factors managed to offset emission rises across the rest of the world.

For 2016, renewables supplied more than half of the global electricity demand growth, mainly through hydro technology, which accounted for half of this share. Coal demand fell worldwide and the overall increase in net nuclear capacity is now at its highest since 1993.

Specific falls

The US recorded a 160m tonne decrease in emissions in 2016, driven by a surge in solar projects, equating to a 3% fall. This was despite the US economy growing by 1.6% in the same timeframe. Overall, emissions in the US were at their lowest levels since 1992 and with a the new administration keen to dismantle emission standards these levels might not be matched for some time.

China, now placed in the vanguard of the renewables movement, decreased emissions by 1% in 2016 through a decline in coal use while its economy jumped by 6.7%. Renewables have also secured a more than 65% share in China’s electricity demand growth, which increased by 5.4% last year. Nuclear was on hand to compliment this rise; the opening of five new nuclear stations brought total nuclear generation to 25%.

For the European Union (EU), emissions remained stable as gas demand increased by 8%. Renewables played a slightly smaller role, although coal demand did fall by 10%. In the UK, cheaper gas and the carbon price floor facilitated a coal-to-gas switch in the power sector.

While the IEA notes that the decoupling, driven by technological cost reductions and climate change concerns, would likely boost air quality levels in the long-term, it warned that current trends would fail to meet the 2°C target of the Paris Agreement.

In order to stand a chance of reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement, the IEA called for “consistent, transparent and predictable” policies to be introduced globally.

Matt Mace

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