Bucking a 4-decade trend, carbon dioxide emissions from world energy producers stalled in 2014. It was the first time in the past 40 years that emissions have halted or reduced without an economic downturn. The International Energy Agency (IEA)’s initial March findings indicate that, just maybe, the global push toward renewable energy and energy efficiency is having some effect.
In terms of the efforts that individuals, businesses, organizations and nations around the world have put into curbing climate change, this is a welcome boost in morale. It’s also a welcome opportunity to reflect on the progress we are making. Here's what happened in 2014:
- Carbon dioxide emissions from world energy producers stalled.
- The global economy actually grew 3%.
- China reported their first decline in CO2 emissions in over a decade.
- It was the first year that China generated more electricity from renewables than any other source.
- The UK reported a 9.7% dip in carbon emissions from 2013 to 2014.
- Across the EU, efficiency measures have led to energy usage dipping back to mid 1990’s levels— despite a 6% increase in population and a 45% boost in economic expansion.
Let’s start in China, the world’s biggest CO2 emitter since 2005. China posted up its first decline in CO2 emissions in over a decade, down 2% from 2013. 2014 was the first year that China generated more electricity from renewables than any other source. This shift in energy consumption from the world’s most populace country is widely believed to have been a key driver of the emissions reductions seen in 2014. This comes at an important time for a country where coal pollution is sparking revolt, while dirty fuels are being faded out of the mix.
Next, the UK has released provisional figures pointing toward a 9.7% dip in carbon emissions from 2013 to 2014, the largest on record for a year when the country’s economy was growing. While nowhere near the population of China, the UK has phased out its coal use to levels that haven’t been seen since the 1850’s, when the island was the center of the industrial revolution. Bolstering these effects, the UK’s largest power station now pulls one third of its 4-gigawatt capacity from biomass.
One of the most impressive aspects of the UK’s dropping carbon emissions is the simple and silent advance of efficiency. It’s progress that the country shares with the rest of the EU, where energy usage has dipped back to mid-1990’s levels despite a 6% increase in population and a 45% boost in economic expansion.
Before we go all in, let’s take a quick pause to soberly review the facts about the IEA’s numbers. While scientists are happy to have a bright spot amidst all the gloomy climate news and future predictions, they also point out that a single year of stalled emissions isn’t enough to establish a long-term trend. Tabling emissions at current levels won’t cut it in terms of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius — the number experts say we need stay under to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Putting the grim realities of climate change aside, there’s a really cool shift in perspective shown in the IEA’s report. In the 40 years that the IEA has been collecting data, emissions have only stopped or dropped three times. Each of those instances was tied to an economic slowdown— but in 2014, the global economy actually grew 3%.
In other words, this is some real proof that we can solve climate change without torpedoing the economy – a well-worn trope of climate change skeptics. This is already a trend in developed countries: the US economy grew 9% between 2008 and 2013, for example, while carbon emissions dropped 7.7 percent. The incentive to shift away from fossil fuels, while still growing economically, is only getting bigger. The challenge will be getting large emerging economies, like India, to make this shift also.
How do we get there? Let’s make sure the leaders of our world champion the goal of an economically positive shift away from carbon pollution. It’s the only way to ensure a real and lasting deal on climate change at this year’s UN Climate Conference.