Cutting the Carbon Cord
April 6, 2016
The big mistake the Utility industry made in the 1970s was, they assumed that GDP growth and electricity consumption were joined and the hip and inseparable, that there was absolutely no elasticity or price sensitivity in demand.
Along came the OPEC embargo, oil prices spiked, and between 1973 and 1975, big power users found out they could make huge cuts in energy use and still remain competitive, in fact, even more so. Amory Lovins has been eating out on this concept ever since.(see below)
Throughout the 20th century, the global economy was fueled by burning coal to run factories and power plants, and burning oil to move planes, trains and automobiles. The more coal and oil countries burned — and the more planet-warming carbon dioxide they emitted — the higher the economic growth.
And so it seemed logical that any policy to reduce emissions would also push countries into economic decline.
Now there are signs that G.D.P. growth and carbon emissions need not rise in tandem, and that the era of decoupling could be starting. Last year, for the first time in the 40 years since both metrics have been recorded, global G.D.P. grew but global carbon emissions leveled off. Economists got excited, but they also acknowledged that it could have been an anomalous blip.
But a study released by the International Energy Agency last month found that the trend continued in 2015. In another study published on Tuesday, Nathaniel Aden, a research fellow at the World Resources Institute, a Washington think tank, found that since the start of the 21st century, 21 countries, including the United States, have already fully decoupled their economic growth from carbon emissions. In those countries, while G.D.P. went up over the past 15 years, carbon pollution went down.
“It’s really exciting, and it suggests that countries can sever the historic link between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions,” Mr. Aden said.
Of course, even if 21 countries have achieved decoupling, more than 170 countries have not. They continue to follow the traditional economic path of growth directly tied to carbon pollution. Among those are some of the world’s biggest polluters: China, India, Brazil and Indonesia.
And decoupling by just 21 countries is not enough to save the planet as we know it. Over the 15 years that Mr. Aden studied, the decoupled countries lowered emissions about 1 billion tons — but overall global emissions grew about 10 billion tons.
The question is whether what happened in the 21 countries can be a model for the rest of the world. Almost all of them are European, but not all are advanced Group of 20 economies. Bulgaria, Romania and Uzbekistan are among them.
However, it is not enough for global emissions to stall. In the interests of maintaining a planet where global temperature rise stays well below 2C, and preferably below 1.5C, the UN has said that emissions must fall to net zero in the second half of the century.
The IEA’s analysis masks considerable regional variety. The global stalling of emissions in 2014 and 2015 is the product of rising emissions in most countries, accompanied by a reduction in others.
Most of the countries that have cut their emissions have also grown their economies. This means that, for a handful of nations, the process of decoupling emissions from the economy is well underway.
The World Resources Institute, a climate think-tank based in Washington DC, has today released analysis showing which countries have achieved this decoupling, by comparing BP data on emissions to World Bank data on GDP.
The BP data contains emissions statistics from 67 countries. Of these, 21 have succeeded in decreasing their emissions while growing their GDP in the period 2000 to 2014.
Here, a recap of what happened following the jump in oil prices in the 70s, and energy efficiency in general, and a more recent video from Amory Lovins on disrupting the energy and oil industy.