The International Energy Agency has hailed a “surprising” and “unprecedented” halt in the rise of global carbon dioxide emissions – an event it directly credits to the growth in solar and wind power, increased hydro, and the decline in coal-fired generation.
The IEA says global CO2 emissions stood at 32.3 billion tonnes in 2014, unchanged from the preceding year, despite a 3 per cent increase in global economic growth. It says this is the first time in 40 years in which there was a halt or reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases that was not tied to an economic downturn such as the global financial crisis.
Specifically, the IEA attributes the halt in emissions growth to changing patterns of energy consumption in China and OECD countries, and the growing use of renewables, particularly solar and wind power – which are now beginning to have a real impact on energy emissions.
In China, it notes, “2014 saw greater generation of electricity from renewable sources, such as hydropower, solar and wind, and less burning of coal.” China is now the world’s biggest investor in renewable energy generation.
The IEA also said recent efforts to promote more sustainable growth – including greater energy efficiency and more renewable energy – in OECD countries are producing the desired effect of decoupling economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions.
“This is both a very welcome surprise and a significant one,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA’s chief economist who is soon to take over as executive director of the organisation. He said, the decoupling of greenhouse gas emissions from economic growth would give much-needed momentum to negotiators preparing to forge a global climate deal in Paris in December.
“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,” Birol said.
Indeed, the significance of the IEA’s findings should not be underestimated. It is recognition from the IEA, long regarded as a staid, conservative organisation focused on fossil fuels and centralised generation, that renewable energy is having an impact, and can achieve real reduction in emissions.
Michael Mann, climatologist, geophysicist, and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, told CleanTechnica: “This a hopeful demonstration of the fact that we can decarbonise and grow the economy at the same time.”
One of the underlying reasons why Copenhagen unravelled was because of the presumed cost of decarbonisation. But in the past five years, the cost of solar PV has fallen by 80 per cent and wind energy by more than 30 per cent, meaning that they can be constructed in some countries without subsidies, and many others will soon follow.
That has given confidence that many of the solutions are at hand. A report by the International Renewable Energy Agency suggested half the emissions abatement task could be reached with energy efficiency, and the other half by the deployment of renewables.
Doubling the penetration of renewables in the global electricity market to 36 per cent by 2030 could be done at no additional cost to business as usual, which is probably taking the world to around 21 per cent renewables by 2030.
India has plans to install another 100GW itself by 2022, and China the same by 2020. The US solar market is also soaring, and in other growing markets, such as the Middle East and north Africa, more than half the new capacity could be solar, according to some energy developers.
India, according to Deutsche Bank, will deliver 25 per cent of its electricity needs from solar by 2022 if it meets its solar target, China is looking to at least 20 per cent renewables by 2030, and could go to 26 per cent. Its coal use in the last year was down 2.9 per cent, another major factor in the stall in global emissions growth.
Its government is under huge pressure to reduce coal burning, and lift its environmental game, following the stunning success of the Under the Dome documentary, viewed by more than 200 million people before it was pulled down a week ago. But it already signalled it is ready to cut a deal with the US on climate, a potential $4.5 trillion blow to the fossil fuel industry.
The US Department of Energy said last week that at least 20 per cent wind was possible by 2030, and 41 per cent by 2050. The EU is basing its 40 per cent emission reduction targets largely around renewables and energy efficiency.
The IEA said there had only been three times in 40 years in which emissions had stood still or fallen compared to the previous year – the early 1980’s, 1992 and 2009 – and all were associated with global economic weakness. It will release further details of its analysis in June.
It promises to be a critical moment in the lead up to Paris, and one that could help countries find a way to lift their individual abatement targets, which will be crucial for an outcome in Paris, which may not provide the big bang solution to limiting average global warming to 2°C, but must at least find a platform that allows those targets to be reached.