Friday 13th: A black day for the brown stuff?

By Richard Black, ECIU Director

The signficance of today’s news from the International Energy Agency (IEA), that global emissions of carbon dioxide did not rise in 2014, cannot be overstated.

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China's efforts to decarbonise the power sector are bearing fruit. Image: Kleineolive, Creative Commons licence

If the IEA's preliminary analysis (reported in the Financial Times) is correct, then for the first time in modern history, the size of the global economy has increased without carbon emissions following suit.

Emissions did not actually fall in 2014. But emissions intensity – the amount of carbon dioxide released per unit of GDP – did.

We’re making more stuff, doing more things, without emitting more CO2.

This is exactly what needs to happen if climate change is to be tackled – if carbon emissions are to come down at anything like the rate that climate science concludes is prudent.

But while individual countries such as Germany and Denmark are living testament that high prosperity is totally compatible with a low-carbon transition, there’s been no concrete indication of it happening at global scale – until now.

Efficient policies

So what’s going on?

As the world’s biggest emitter, China’s position is pivotal. The government has been working to constrain coal burning, even as it seeks to spread the benefits of modern energy systems to its nethermost, occasionally restless regions.

The first rationale is reducing the air pollution that plagues its biggest cities, but constraining climate change is a strong secondary reason.

Making industry more efficient is also a no-brainer for a country that wants to preserve its position as the world’s principal factory.

And with an eye to the future, China invested some $89.5bn in renewable energy last year – one-third of the global total – an early signal of its ambition to build clean energy capacity at a rate equivalent to one coal-fired power station per week for the next 15 years.

Accordingly, China’s emissions fell by 2% even as its economy grew by nearly 4%.

In the US, the second-biggest emitter, energy-related emissions rose slightly during the year as coal made something of a comeback in the electricity system, although in recent years US emissions have fallen with the impact of shale gas and renewable energy.

It’s not clear yet whether the 2014 increase has been offset by decreases in other sectors – whether for example the progressive tightening of regulations on energy efficiency of vehicles is bringing emissions from that sector down.

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Europe's investment in renewables is another factor driving emissions down. Image: National Grid

In several European countries, emissions fell due a number of factors – clement weather, economic stagnation, increasing share of renewables, improving energy efficiency, and so on. UK emissions fell by a whopping 9% according to an early analysis of government data by the Carbon Brief website.

Before getting over-excited, it’s worth noting that some countries – notably Russia – are going through a significant economic downturn. In Russia’s case, betting the bank on oil and gas is looking like a pretty poor decision – the stranding of a nation’s biggest asset.

Many wedges

If we’re to simplify this down to the most basic question and ask ‘so what’s behind the decoupling?’, you’d have to respond: ‘a bit of this and a bit of that’.

...or as climate change anoraks refer to that concept - Socolow’s wedges.

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The 'wedge' concept breaks decarbonisation down into manageable chunks. Image: Science in School, Creative Commons licence

Back in 2004, Princeton University economists Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala proposed a new way of looking at decarbonisation.

They looked at the current rising trajectory of carbon emissions, and then at the trajectory that emissions need to follow in order to hit whatever target society decides is needed – for example, the 2 Celsius target that all governments have subsequently adopted - and asked how the gap between them can be bridged.

As they wrote in their seminal paper in the journal Science: ‘A portfolio of technologies now exists to meet the world's energy needs over the next 50 years and limit atmospheric CO2… Although no element is a credible candidate for doing the entire job (or even half the job) by itself, the portfolio as a whole is large enough that not every element has to be used.’

In that paper they identified 15 different wedges grouped into four fields – efficiency, decarbonisation of power, decarbonisation of fuel, and forests and agriculture.

But the exact number doesn’t matter. It’s the principle of the thing: essentially, the pragmatic strategy is to pursue several different lines of decarbonisation at the same time, the exact mix depending on the particular economic and social conditions in the given country.

No silver bullet, no magic wand – just a lot of different measures implemented in different ways, adding up to something profound.

And if the IEA is right, that’s exactly what we’re seeing now around the world.

Policies to cut coal use in China, a coal-to-gas swap in the US, tightening of regulations on energy efficiency all over the place, the rapid march of solar power in Germany, forestry laws in Brazil… each on its own perhaps not that remarkable, but if you put enough wedges together in the right way, if you break the problem down into bite-sized chunks, you can end up with something quite significant.

It's worth noting in passing that the 2014 data emerged without any expansion of two potentially significant wedges - nuclear power and carbon capture and storage.

No chickens

Now, we shouldn’t entirely be counting chickens at this stage. 

The IEA conclusions are preliminary – we’ll see the full data in June – and it’s only for one year. Just as the global temperature graph shows annual variations about which some people get very excited, so one would expect the emissions graph to show the same kind of temporary ups and downs; and any number of trends such as rising oil consumption on the back the low oil price, harsh weather across major landmasses and political opposition to low-carbon technologies could help re-couple growth and emissions again.

Also, just stabilising emissions isn't anywhere near enough to meet the 2 Celsius target or prevent any of the other projected consequences of climate change. A much starker decoupling is needed.

However, if the IEA data are validated, we are seeing something remarkable. Never before, even for a single year, have emissions not increased with economic growth.

So if you’re concerned about the risks that climate change poses, you’d be fully justified in marking today in your diary in the brightest of ink – the day when the necessary became quite evidently feasible.

And if you’re an unrequited advocate of all things fossil-fuelled, whether paid or not, then you’d equally be justified in marking this particular Friday 13th as a very black day indeed for your dreams of eternal brown-coloured world domination.