climate change

When will global CO2 emissions peak?

A few years ago, before the economy fell over, there was a brief flurry of activity around climate change. One of the key figures at the time was the need for emissions to peak by 2015, a date derived from the 2007 IPCC report and popularized by and friends. Emissions had to reach their maximum and begin to decline from 2015 if there was to be any chance of keeping below 2 degrees of warming.

The logic is pretty simple. The later you leave it to start reducing emissions, the steeper the downward curve will need to be. Past a certain point, the reductions needed every year begin to look impossible.

This is an important point. Peaking early is the only way to secure a measured, step by step decarbonisation. Leave it too late, and sharp cuts to emissions become inevitable if we want to avoid dangerous climate change. Since those would be economically disruptive and therefore politically unpalatable, we’d almost certainly end up with the dangerous climate change.

Since we’re halfway through 2015, it seems like a good time to ask how we’re doing on an emissions peak. And on that front, there may be some news. Earlier this year the International Energy Agency announced that energy related emissions for 2014 had held steady at 32 gigatonnes, the same as 2013.

This is significant. There was no great financial meltdown or energy crisis to provide an easy explanation. There have been three times in which emissions have dipped, and they’ve all been recessions. The global economy grew in 2014 and emissions still stayed stable. That makes 2014 a first in the 40 years that the IEA has been keeping track. As their chief economist Faith Birol says, “This is both a very welcome surprise and a significant one.”

The main reason for this drop, according to the IEA, is China using less coal. Improvements in energy efficiency and renewable energy in the OECD may also be contributing, leading the IEA to wonder if climate mitigation strategies are actually working better than we thought. Of course, you can only see a peak with hindsight, but if 2015’s figures are down too, perhaps we’ll be over the hump and on our way to a safer, cooler world.

On the other hand, it’s important to note that this is just emissions from energy, and therefore not the total of global emissions. The ‘energy related’ bit was dropped from much of the reporting on this story, including the BBC and the FT, leading to over-optimistic headlines. It’s also just CO2, not greenhouse gases. So perhaps we should exercise some caution.

Other agencies take longer to announce their calculations on emissions, so the full picture has yet to emerge. The two biggest emitters are China and the US. So far it looks like US emissions rose in 2014, but China’s may have fallen as the country goes on an air quality drive.

We’ll have to wait and see if 2014 really did represent a stalling in world emissions. And then we’ll need to wait some more to see it’s a one-off or the start of a trend. Hopefully it’s the latter, but we shouldn’t assume we’ve hit a peak just yet and get complacent.




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