Carbon Slowdown? The “decoupling of emissions from economic growth”

October 31, 2013


Global emissions of carbon dioxide may be showing the first signs of a “permanent slowdown” in the rate of increase.

According to a new report, emissions in 2012 increased at less than half the average over the past decade.

Key factors included the shift to shale gas for energy in the US while China increased its use of hydropower by 23%.

However the use of cheap coal continues to be an issue, with UK consumption up by almost a quarter.

The report on trends in global emissions has been produced annually by the Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre.

It finds that emissions of carbon dioxide reached a new record in 2012 of 34.5bn tonnes.

But the rate of increase in CO2 was 1.4%, despite the global economy growing by 3.5%.

Breaking the link

This decoupling of emissions from economic growth is said to be down to the use of less fossil fuels, more renewable energy and increased energy savings.

The main emitters, accounting for 55% of the global total, were China, the US and the European Union. All three saw changes that were described as “remarkable” by the report’s authors.

Emissions from China increased by 3% but this was a significant slowdown compared to annual increases of around 10% over the past decade.

There were two important factors in reducing China’s CO2. The first was the ending of a large economic stimulus package. As a result electricity and energy prices increased at half the rate of GDP.

“They want to grow economically less fast,” one of the authors, Dr Greet Maenhout, told BBC News.


14 Responses to “Carbon Slowdown? The “decoupling of emissions from economic growth””

  1. Laissez-faire renewables policy not exactly on schedule to avoid doom.

    Thirty years of letting free enterprise “solve” AGW and this is what we celebrate – a decrease in the rate of increase of atmospheric CO2 – and yet another record year of emissions.

    Solving AGW is going to take Federally-mandated construction projects.

    • ontspan Says:

      Exactly my thoughts. I guess this is ‘good’ news, but ‘a slowdown of the rate of increase’ sounds more like a euphemism.

  2. jimbills Says:

    The “decoupling of emissions from economic growth” is a deeply dangerous meme, at least until it can be proven definitively. It convinces the public that business-as-usual will solve everything, and I just see the opposite. Just go back to sleep, people.

    Who could possibly take this chart as “good news”:

    The rate of increase has dropped before, only to rise again. Aren’t we supposed to look for the signal in the noise? Isn’t one year just noise?

    Here’s what happens with continued economic growth, as envisioned by any good free market capitalist. The West becomes “green”, and emissions in the developed countries drop 20-30% by 2050 (all the while we’re still pumping out huge rates of carbon and methane), China grows until it is fully developed, until all other countries emissions are dwarfed, even if they have a high mix of hydro, wind, gas, and nuclear, India does the same shortly afterwards, then Africa and the other developing countries do the same thing. Where does this leave us?

    Look at the above chart again. When did the rate of emissions drop the most significantly? The recession, our brief period of de-growth. That should have been our good news, but everyone is so frightened about paying their bills and whether or not they can afford their next vacation, so the machine rolls on.

    • There are choices to be made. We can either come to grips with our situation and respond, or wait for the consequences of our actions to wash over us. There is some evidence of both. What we need to do is stay positive and focused. When the problems are ignored, pressure builds. We are seeing the problems now that will force change. There is an increasing realization that the earth is changing. We must work together to respond. We caused these external changes. We must change internally to get a different result. We cannot continue business as usual. Can we just add a few controls and some tech fixes and continue on our way?
      I think not. It just is not working. There is strong evidence that our system of life is based on the notion of unlimited growth. One thing is certain. If we do nothing to change that, unlimited growth will find its limits. GW is a limit. It is one of many we are facing. The unifying theme is growth. The concern here is with whether we can collectively respond by choice to avoid consequence, or whether we allow consequence to fall upon us. So far, the jury is out. Given the fact that we already see consequences, we need to move more quickly to avoid further disaster. A small indication of turning the corner is welcome, but not satisfying.
      A reduction in CO2 is our immediate goal.

      Click to access ifemmision.pdf

  3. The bottom line is that carbon emissions are still increasing year-on-year. This isn’t even the beginning of the response to our over-carbonized atmosphere and oceans.

    The response could be said to have begun when our species stop increasing and start reducing the annual carbon emissions. Mid point might be when we zero our net carbon emissions. The work will be done when we return the carbon status of the air to some lower levels in the 300-350ppm bracket and achieve a parallel target for the oceans.

    • I’d suggest that zeroing our net carbon emissions is far too low a bar.  We should aim for at least 1 ppm/yr reductions in atmospheric CO2, aiming for 350 ppm as an interim goal.  Note, not an ULTIMATE goal; 350 ppm may not actually stabilize the things we need to be stable.  But if we can deliberately get to 350 ppm in the space of a few decades, we can continue to whatever level is required.

  4. redskylite Says:

    That is good news that gives me some hope, although NOAA at Mauna Loa, still shows a steady 2.4ish ppm annual rise for 2013/14 (on target for 402ppm+ CO2 in May) and the report ignores the steadily rising methane levels too. Businesses and heavy industrials (Shell, Mobil-Exxon etc.) must take a lion share in GHG reduction and behave responsibly in tackling this issue, there is more to life than just pleasing your shareholders I’m afraid. How about pleasing all stakeholders in planet Earth too. Viscount Monckton of Brenchley will be long dead and buried when the effects really start biting us, I wonder if his type even have a conscience.

  5. Cy Halothrin Says:

    I’m going to call bullsh*t on this. This report is talking about emissions at the smokestack. So yes, switching from coal to burning shale gas (mainly in the USA) would give the false impression that some kind of progress was being made.

    What isn’t accounted for is the massive amount of leakage of methane from the ground due to fracking operations. Aside from being a much worse greenhouse gas than CO2, methane in the atmosphere eventually breaks down to form CO2 and water.

    As redskylite pointed out above, we aren’t seeing any down trend of measured CO2 in the atmosphere. Here is the latest chart of CO2 measurements in the atmosphere at Mauna Loa:

    If there is some great progress being made, I’m not seeing it in this chart.

    Of course, I don’t dispute that a worldwide economic collapse would cause a major dip in CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, an economic collapse would have some other severe consequences.

    • jimbills Says:

      Rising methane ‘due to mining and wetlands’:

      De-growth doesn’t necessarily mean collapse. But what’s worse – our highly pollutive generations suffering, or tens to hundreds of following generations suffering the environmental effects from us?

      • redskylite Says:

        Thanks for the link that is a very interesting article on Methane levels, I understand that some of the increased methane level is from tundra and soils thawing around the Arctic – not sure if you could call that wholly natural if you believe that man has something to do with the Arctic melt. I’ve heard some folks saying that huge methane releases could be an irreversible “tipping point”, are they alarmists or realists I wonder ?.

        • jimbills Says:

          While a methane explosion in the Arctic is theoretically possible, at this point it’s generally considered unlikely:

          It’s VITAL that environmentalists not succumb to irrational alarmism. There is more than enough reason to be concerned enough – we’re failing in virtually every way possible, and the trends are only towards increases in these failures. But our one shot at convincing others of the situation is strong science and fact.

          Of course, humans have a tendency to only be concerned about their own skins. Most projections focus on the 100 year time scale. The real question is what happens at 200-500 years? Will a tipping point lead to another tipping point to another?

        • I suspect there are techno-fixes to methane explosions.  Stratospheric superpressure blimps propelling themselves with PV-powered corona-wind jets might generate enough free radicals and ozone to consume said methane.  Might.  I’d rather not bet on it, if I had a choice.

  6. There is an odd corollary to this which raises hope. Most of the decrease in co2 in EU is renewables. Downside is efficiency is behind schedule. Would be nice to see where we are if present carbon plans are mart.

    • I have to wonder what an alternative scenario would yield.  Instead of RE, spend the same on nuclear with these emphases on the demand side:
      1.  Overnight “dump” loads to boost minimum demand:  heat batteries, electric vehicles, etc.
      2.  Peak-load management:  ice storage for cooling loads.
      3.  Electrification of fuel-consuming applications as surplus power is available, perhaps retaining existing burners as backup.

      A kilowatt that’s being generated 24/7 can displace a lot more than a kilowatt that’s only there from 10 AM to 2 PM.

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