Graph of the Day: Decoupling Growth from Carbon

November 1, 2022

Financial Times (paywall):

In 2009, coal was still an attractive option for countries looking for affordable energy, its average costs coming in well below renewables. But by 2020, both wind and solar had become far cheaper per unit of energy. In some markets, capital-intensive new installations even worked out cheaper than existing coal plants.

In response, India’s appetite for coal has quickly waned. In 2019, the International Energy Agency forecast that the country’s installed capacity of coal would grow by around 80 per cent between 2018 and 2040.

A year later, they revised that to just 10 per cent.

Similar patterns have played out elsewhere. For the best part of the past 200 years, one rule held across the world: if a country’s economic activity expanded, so did its carbon emissions. But starting in the 1980s with the advent of nuclear power, it became increasingly common to see countries cutting emissions while growing GDP.

The pace of this decoupling has now accelerated as the shift from carbon-intensive manufacturing to services and from dirtier to relatively cleaner fossil fuels has been supercharged by proliferating cheap renewables. In 2016, 70 countries — more than one in three worldwide — had a run of at least five years in which carbon emissions declined while GDP grew.

Green growth is already here. Even putting aside the climate justice argument, there has long been an assumption that developing countries would have to go through dirty growth. But here again the data paint a promising picture.

While developing countries do follow an environmental Kuznets curve, where the carbon-intensity of GDP increases before falling away again, each successive cohort traces a cleaner path than the last.

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4 Responses to “Graph of the Day: Decoupling Growth from Carbon”

  1. John Oneill Says:

    Relative change for individual countries dating from 1990 can be a misleading indicator – if one was making a lot of CO2 in 1990, but that figure didn’t decrease, the climate still ‘sees’ that annual input. For example, the US had very high emissions per capita in 1990. They’ve got a little less, but that’s still a lot, every year. New Zealand had quite low CO2 emissions in 1990, since we got most of our electricity from hydro. Since then, the population and the economy have grown considerably, hydro construction had come to a standstill, and only recently has geothermal and wind started to fill the demand gap (except in dry years.) However, our dairy industry has grown hugely in the period, and so have the associated methane emissions. In contrast, France and Sweden had already largely decarbonised their electricity production, with hydro and nuclear, by the early eighties, so any improvements they show from 1990 are on top of an already much better base figure.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      I myself balked at comparing countries like Finland (Arctic country, pop ~5.5m, GDP ~$320b) and the US (big ol’ thang, pop ~332m, GDP $25tr), but of course the whole point of this assortment of graphs is to show the traditional correlation of increase of GDP and increase of emissions no longer holds.

      (Many used to hold that increase in GDP required increase in use of fossil fuels.)

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Important note on the display of graphs:
    “Emissions adjusted for offshoring of carbon-intensive products consumed domestically”

  3. Keith Omelvena Says:

    While being a firm believer exponential growthism is the primary directive of species like yeast, Id still be interested if the increase in gas use offset coal use would look so rosey if CO2e of fugitive methane was added in?


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