Are We Finally Seeing Good Climate News from the US and China?

Are We Finally Seeing Good Climate News from the US and China?

April 26, 2016

Good news. Global emissions have now flattened for a second year in a row, according to a recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris. The finding is both encouraging and plausible, given the astounding changes taking place in how the world uses energy.

From small domains like Scotland, where booming wind power drove renewables to 57 percent of total electricity generation last year, to big countries like the United States, where coal retirements keep coming, demand growth for fossil fuels has slumped.

To be sure, a vast dependency on coal, natural gas, and oil remains very much embedded in the world’s economic system. But even in China, which built up its own coal position the past two decades, the adoption rate of new wind and solar power has been nothing less than heroic. China, which recently signed on to the Paris agreement, will erect more solar capacity this year (20 GW) than even existed, globally, in 2008.

The news of slowing emissions has also triggered a great deal of excitement that decoupling -- the long-held view that economic growth could eventually break free from carbon output -- has finally arrived. There is gathering evidence for this optimism. On the energy side of the ledger, energy intensity -- a measure of how much energy is required to create GDP -- has been in decline in the U.S. for several decades. On the economic side of the ledger, the global economy is increasingly built on digital goods -- apps, cloud services, bits, films, data -- which require less energy but drive capital nevertheless.

Indeed, if we look at developed regions like Europe, Japan, and North America, emissions peaked back in 2007 and have since been steadily falling. Better still, GDP from these countries, the OECD, has rebounded nicely since the Great Recession, rising from $34 to $39 trillion — this growth has been led by the U.S. So far, so good. However, developed-world countries account for just 25-30 percent of the global population.

Glen Peters, an intrepid Australian a world away from home, is a senior researcher working on the climate problem at The Center for International Climate and Environmental Research—Oslo (CICERO) in Norway. After the IEA released its optimistic report, TPM reached out to Peters for his views. Unsurprisingly, it’s China that’s driving both the optimism, and the uncertainty, over peak emissions.


Image from cicero.com

"Well, the U.S. peaked almost ten years ago. But with China, we’ll probably have to wait five to ten years before we can look back and say, OK, their emissions peaked.” Peters is referring, of course, to the dangers of drawing a baseline that runs back only a year or two, in time. China’s coal consumption trends look great by that measure, remaining flat in 2014, for example. In the same year its oil consumption growth slowed to just 3.3 percent. And for the last two years, China’s use of coal in power generation alone reportedly declined.

The problem, the temptation really, is to declare this brief easing the high summit of energy consumption in China. Draw your baseline back a bit further however—just five years—and coal consumption is up 17 percent between 2009 and 2014. In the same period, oil use is up a fearsome 34 percent. And let’s not forget, even at the present slowdown point, China is still consuming a full half of the world’s coal. In the past decade, China’s coal consumption has gone up a whopping 74 percent.

China’s slower economy, of late, has only added to the puzzle of the country’s future path. “My concern looking ahead,” says Peters, “is the amount of idle coal-fired power capacity that China has at its disposal. If economic growth returned, coal could easily and very quickly increase its share again.”