Global CO2 emissions flat for 3d year in a row

U.S. emissions at 1992 level, according to IEA report

The Craig Station power plant in northwest Colorado pollutes lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park. @bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

Carbon dioxide emissions from the world’s biggest economies — the U.S. and China — dropped in 2016 and didn’t grow in Europe, showing that economic growth can occur without an increase in heat-trapping pollution, according to the latest emissions report from the International Energy Agency.

Despite the slowdown in emissions from the power sector, CO2 levels are still climbing at a record rate, though, according to scientists who recently released a report showing that concentrations of the heat-trapping greenhouse gas increased 3 parts per million for the second year in a row. The concentration is now above 400 ppm, more than 43 percent more than pre-industrial levels.

As in the previous two years, flat-lining global emissions were the result of a surge in renewable energy production, switches from coal to natural gas, improvements in energy efficiency, and structural changes in the global economy.

According to the IEA, total global emissions from the energy sector were 32.1 gigatonnes last year, the same as the previous two years, while the global economy grew 3.1 percent. The downward trend in China and the U.S. offest increases in the rest of the world. U.S. emissions dropped the most — 3 percent — even as the economy grew by 1.6 percent. The decline was driven by a surge in shale gas supplies and cheaper renewable power that displaced coal. Emissions in the United States last year were at their lowest level since 1992, a period during which the economy grew by 80 percent.

“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,” said Dr. Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director. “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.”

Renewable sources met more than half the global electricity demand growth, with hydro accounting for half of that share. Nuclear power also was part of the equation, with net capacity at the highest level since 1993. New reactors were activated in China, the United States, South Korea, India, Russia and Pakistan.

Coal demand fell worldwide with the sharpest in the United States, where demand was down 11 percent in 2016. For the first time, electricity generation from natural gas was higher than from coal last year in the United States.

With the appropriate policies, and large amounts of shale reserves, natural gas production in the United States could keep growing strongly in the years to come. This could have three main consequences: it could boost domestic manufacturing, supply more competitive gas to Asia through to LNG exports, and provide alternative gas supplies to Europe.

China’s emissions fell by 1 percent last year, as coal demand declined while the economy expanded by 6.7 percent.

“In China, as well as in India, the growth in natural gas is significant, reflecting the impact of air-quality measures to fight pollution as well as energy diversification,” said Dr. Birol. “The share of gas in the global energy mix is close to a quarter today but in China it is 6 percent and in India just 5 percent, which shows they have a large potential to grow.”

In the European Union, emissions were largely stable last year as gas demand rose about 8 percent and coal demand fell 10 percent. Renewables also played a significant, but smaller, role. The United Kingdom saw a significant coal-to-gas switching in the power sector, thanks to cheaper gas and a carbon price floor.

Market forces, technology cost reductions, and concerns about climate change and air pollution were the main forces behind this decoupling of emissions and economic growth. While the pause in emissions growth is positive news to improve air pollution, it is not enough to put the world on a path to keep global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius, the IEA concluded.

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