climate change energy growth

Falling emissions in a growing economy

In 2014 the UK recorded the highest ever fall in carbon emissions in a growing economy, if preliminary calculations are correct. A year on year fall of 9.2% is apparently unprecedented outside of recession, and is an interesting development.

Economic growth and carbon emissions are closely linked, because growing economies use more energy and consume more goods. Since nobody wants to talk about postgrowth options yet, most mainstream carbon strategies aim for decoupling – breaking the link between growth and emissions.

It’s easy to talk about efficiency and renewable energy. In practice, decoupling is very hard to do. Or at least, it’s hard to do in absolute terms. Most countries are slowly becoming more efficient, but to make real progress you have to reduce emissions faster than the economy grows. Of the 190 or so countries in the world, you can count those who’ve achieved absolute decoupling on the fingers of one hand.

Britain’s 9.2% drop in emissions is as close as anyone’s come to the kind of trend we need to see if absolute decoupling is going to work as a strategy. This kind of carbon reduction usually only happens in a recession. Since records began, just four year have seen a bigger fall in CO2. They include the financial crisis in 2009, and the miner’s strike in 1921.

So what happened in 2014, and is there anything we can learn from it? There are a number of factors, say Carbon Brief:

  • First of all, 2014 was the warmest year on record in Britain. That reduced energy demand for heating.
  • Even adjusted for temperature, there would still have been a fall in energy use – continuing a ten year trend. (This is due to more efficient boilers and appliances, plus the effect of rising energy prices.)
  • Renewable energy continued to advance, growing to 15% of our electricity mix.
  • The biggest factor by far however, accounting for two thirds of the fall in CO2, is a drop in coal use for energy generation. This fell by a fifth. This is great news, and corrects the big backwards leap in coal use in 2012.

Is this something we can build on, or is the 9.2% a one-off good year? Well, renewable energy trends look okay, and general efficiency is likely to tick along. We can’t predict the weather though, and this winter has been much closer to the average temperature.

The biggest factor will be coal again. So far it looks like coal prices are correcting themselves after a sudden drop, and generators may continue to switch back to gas. A number of coal power stations are expected to close in 2015, and politicians have promised to halt investment in ‘unabated’ coal. So we might get another significant fall in 2015.

Whether this kind of progress can be maintained in the longer term is, of course, another question altogether. And it’s in the longer term that absolute decoupling starts to unravel as a plan for dealing with climate change. In his book Prosperity Without Growth, Tim Jackson calculates that we need carbon emissions to fall by 11% a year if we want the economy to grow and still prevent dangerous climate change.

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