Global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main long-lived global warming pollutant, flatlined in 2014, despite global economic growth, a report released Friday found.
This is the first time in 40 years in which there was a halt or reduction in greenhouse gas emissions without an economic downturn, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) in Vienna, Austria. The new data may indicate some progress is being made in addressing global warming, which is caused largely by increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
However, a slowdown in the growth of emissions will not solve global warming by itself, since billions of tonnes of planet-warming gases are still being added to the atmosphere much faster than the rate at which the environment can absorb them into the oceans and forests. Last year was the warmest year on record globally, and the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere has already hit an all-time high so far this year, likely the highest levels since the dawn of the human civilization — or longer.
The IEA data showed that emissions from the energy sector, which includes power plants that burn coal or natural gas to generate electricity, remained at 32.3 billion tonnes in 2014, which was about the same level as in 2013.
“This gives me even more hope that humankind will be able to work together to combat climate change, the most important threat facing us today,” IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol said in a statement.
The IEA found that the halt in emissions growth is likely due to changing energy consumption in China as well as industrialized countries. In China, where rapid economic growth has led to massive pollution problems, there was a greater reliance on renewable energy sources in 2014, such as hydropower and wind energy.
The Chinese government is also seeking to separate economic growth from emissions trends so the economy can expand without turning the air and water so noxious that it becomes hazardous to the health of the country’s citizens.
“This is both a very welcome surprise and a significant one,” Birol added. “It provides much-needed momentum to negotiators preparing to forge a global climate deal in Paris in December: For the first time, greenhouse gas emissions are decoupling from economic growth.”
For decades, policymakers have talked about this “decoupling” goal. It is a push to get the line on a chart representing economic growth to go upwards, while driving emissions down. It’s only recently begun to be successful.
Former President George W. Bush established a global warming goal of reducing America’s greenhouse gas intensity, which is a measure of its emissions output per unit of economic output, for example. President Barack Obama has sought to reduce absolute levels of carbon emissions, but his programs, too, seek to separate economic growth from emissions growth to enable a clean energy economy to take root.
The glut of U.S. natural gas via hydraulic fracturing technology, or “fracking,” has helped reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions while boosting the economy, and is likely a contributing factor to the IEA’s findings. So too are gains being made in energy efficiency.
A report from the Energy Information Administration last year found that average energy use per person in the U.S. is declining each year, and is projected to plunge in the coming decades.
There were three other times in the 40 years that the IEA collected carbon dioxide data when annual energy sector emissions stalled. These include the early 1980s, as well as 1992 and 2009. Each of these years featured global economic weakness, whereas in 2014, the IEA says, the global economy grew by 3%.
Outgoing IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven said the new data does not mean that global warming is suddenly being solved, or that policymakers don’t have to undertake the ambitious cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that the IEA and other organizations have been saying for years are necessary to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.
“The latest data on emissions are indeed encouraging, but this is no time for complacency — and certainly not the time to use this positive news as an excuse to stall further action,” said van der Hoeven.
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