Are Carbon emissions decoupling from economic growth?

13 06 2015

What stalling emissions mean, and don’t mean, for our climate

This arrived in my mailbox in the form of a newsletter.  I thought DTM readers may find this interesting….

April 2, 2015 // By: Griffin Carpenter

Recently we reported big news on climate change as preliminary data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) indicated that growth in CO2 emissions stalled in 2014. This outcome is significant because the global economy actually grew by 3% at the same time – until this point, all previous periods of stalled or falling CO2 emissions have occurred during recessions.

Some are taking this as a sign of absolute decoupling (when a weak link between two measures means that one measure can rise while the other falls); breaking down the link between a growing economy and action on climate change. But the reality is more complex and makes for much more solemn reading.

For the past decade there has been a decoupling of growth and emissions in some developed economies including the UK and the US. But some analysis (including the Scottish government’s own accounting) has shown that this trend disappears once we account for CO2 consumption emissions due to imports. There is a longer lag for this reporting, but with decoupling occurring on a global scale, even consumption emissions in many developed countries are expected to have fallen recently.

The global change is occurring mainly in China, although other countries are following a similar growth path. Not coincidentally, 2014 was the first year where coal use fell in China at the same time as carbon emissions. This has occurred as rapid industrial development is slowing in China, and as the country has become the world’s largest market for renewable energy.

All this is undoubtedly good news for the efficacy of energy transition policies. Tighter efficiency standards and the rollout of renewables are beginning to show significantly in global figures. Still, on the issue of decoupling there are several reasons why it’s too soon to start celebrating.

On the data side it’s important to note that these figures are preliminary and one year does not constitute a trend. This data also only covers CO2 emissions from combustion, so at best it represents a partial, picture of our contributions to climate change.

However looking behind the data, there is also good reason to suspect that no significant structural change is occurring as the use of some fossil fuels continues to rise. Contrary to old “peak oil” theories, the problem is that we have too much of the stuff, not too little. With the massive decrease in  oil prices, global consumption is not expected to ease off any time soon and a similar trend can be seen in gas. But without structural change, these fuels are likely to become a carbon trap as physical and market structures are built around these energy sources and our use of them becomes locked-in. Switching fossil fuels does not represent a tipping point and the reduction of CO2 will be limited.

While the scope of fuel switching may have a small impact, there should be no mistake about the magnitude of change required in a short period of time. The global climate system has no interest in growth rates. From that perspective, the most relevant fact is that in 2014 and 2013 we added more CO2 to the atmosphere than ever before. Net zero emissions is the real goal and that is a far cry from zero change in growth.

With these incremental shifts behind stalling CO2 emissions and the magnitude of the challenge facing us, it’s important to note the link between GDP and CO2 to date. A growing economy has meant that changes in carbon intensity have been overpowered, with total emissions moving in the opposite direction and adding to the problem of climate change. This issue is often ignored when politicians boast about improvements in carbon intensity.

In the current economy,an extra $1 in GDP can be expected to add almost half a kilogram of carbon to the atmosphere. GDP growth in the current system makes the necessary CO2 reductions a more difficult task. Meanwhile aggregate GDP growth without climate impacts remains very much a theoretical idea.

That global emissions are stalling is certainly welcome news, and is linked to energy efficiency and energy transition policies in the developed and developing world. But it does not provide evidence of the significant structural change needed to break the link between GDP growth and CO2 emissions. On the current evidence, we should not believe the climate system is going to stabilise any time soon, or that this will continue to a net zero carbon economy in the time required to address climate change.

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16 responses

13 06 2015
davekimble3

Since US, EU, Japan, China, and probably many others, are frantically trying to make their GDP seem bigger than it really is, and CO2 emissions seem smaller, this could be simply a case of dodgy numbers. The financial situation is much worse than is being admitted.

> Contrary to old “peak oil” theories, the problem is that we have too much of the stuff, not too little.

No, according to simple Peak Oil theory, the impact of high oil prices on demand for oil is ignored – the Hubbert Curve represents the maximum production rate that can be achieved, not the actual rate. After the second oil shock in 1979, demand went down for 4 years, and took another 10 years to recover 1979 levels. But Peak Oil still lives.

13 06 2015
Anthony William O'brien

Another indication that the bullshit economy is ignoring reality

13 06 2015
bry

Sorry to be slow but what does carbon intensity mean?

14 06 2015
mikestasse

Carbon Intensity is the amount of Carbon per dollar of GDP necessary for a certain amount of economic growth.

14 06 2015
Eclipse Now

Decoupling electricity from carbon is possible.
One word.
France.

14 06 2015
mikestasse

Oh? And what about all the cars and trucks..??

14 06 2015
Eclipse Now

Hang on: first you’re conceding the *electricity* supply of France has some of the lowest CO2 / kwh in Europe, and is largely decoupled? That’s good.

Cars and trucks are addressed here:
https://eclipsenow.wordpress.com/recharge/
Done.

16 06 2015
Mike Cooper

Depends if you like nuclear power or not. How much would it cost to build enough nuclear power stations to retire all of the worlds’ current fossil fueled ones? And how much CO2 would be emitted in building, maintaining, and decommissioning the new nuclear stations?

16 06 2015
Eclipse Now

If they can figure out a way to do 100% renewables, then I’m a fan. So far I’m not convinced they can. I used to hate nukes as too dangerous, too expensive, and leaving waste forever. Now I realise coal is a Chernobyl every day, Chernobyl was a ridiculous reactor NEVER built in the west and was an accident waiting to happen, and Fukushima was a tired old Gen2 reactor that suffered a catastrophic natural disaster. They should fence of the few blocks around the reactor and then let every one come home. More people have already died of homesick-related depression than they would have from additional cancer. Kerala India has naturally occurring radiation 3 times higher. So nukes are safe. The Chinese are working on mass producing nukes to bring down to cheaper than coal, and GenIV nukes will be room-pressure, not high pressure water reactors. Room pressure means the reactor core can be modularised and the flange pressure vessel doesn’t have to be a single-cast piece of steel like a round room 2 stories high. That’s hard, and expensive. But room pressure? Break the reactor core down into parts and assemble on site. Easy, and cheap. That’s nuclear power on the production line. Today’s CANDU reactors eat nuclear waste, and tomorrow’s GenIV reactors will do so even more efficiently. Today’s stockpile of nuclear waste could run the world for 500 years. (There are final fission products, but they only have to be stored for 300 years once the longer lived actinides are fissioned away.)

Finally, the CO2 to build renewables or nukes is going to happen, one way or the other. We’re not just going to retreat into an Amish lifestyle voluntarily. The question is, how fast can we get off the fossil fuels? I’m convinced that only nuclear power can provide the type of electricity we like. But Mike and I could both be wrong on renewables. There are models that suggest weird funky new smart grids that could run 100% of our world with minimal storage, with all that ‘demand matching’ stuff. Not sure I’d like to leave it to chance like that, so maybe I’ll say I’m happy with a half and half grid.

16 06 2015
17 06 2015
Max Green (Eclipse)

Sea levels rising 7 metres? That’s generations away! We can plan for that, and in the meantime solve climate change. The article you linked to has an interesting slip.
” the majority of nuclear power plants”
There you are. There are designs for nukes that don’t use as much water: just increase the cooling tower size for less water, and there are reactors coming that don’t even use water as a coolant, such as MSR’s and other liquid metal cooled reactors.
Anyway, if sea-levels start to really rise I think it will provoke some nation to resort to the sulphur shield and start cooling this planet: get the ice growing again.

17 06 2015
mikestasse

7 metres could be a lot closer than you think with the poles melting five times faster (and accelerating) than ever predicted by models.

16 06 2015
Mike Cooper

We don’t have enough resources or fossil fuels to build enough renewables to run BAU, and the nuclear technology you’re talking about is still at least 30 years away (assuming BAU). So it’s not going to play out that way without the climate going completely tits up anyway. The reason I mentioned nuclear is because most of France’s electricity is nuclear.

17 06 2015
mikestasse

For the time being…….. they are already talking of retiring the whole lot which is nearly all 50 or more years old….

21 06 2015
Eclipse Now

Anyway, why are we still here? I thought Gail Tverberg said this was the year the world economy will collapse. The Greek economy might, but they’re only half the size of the NSW economy. That hardly counts as a global economic collapse, and is more about politics than economic inevitability.

21 06 2015

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