March 2, 2020

Was 2019 Peak Carbon Emissions?

Was 2019 Peak Carbon Emissions?

The International Energy Agency recently issued a report that global carbon emissions likely declined last year for the first time. [Click here to read the report.] There is some dispute about whether there was actually a decline based on the IEA’s methodology but there is a general consensus carbon emissions have been in decline in the developed countries for about a decade, while emissions in developing countries have continued to rise.  But the rate of the increase in the developing countries has slowed.

Click on the report for inactive chart.

The decline in emissions is particularly encouraging because the world’s population and economy grew last year, suggesting that we are emitting even less carbon per capita than the gross number indicates.

The decrease in the growth of emissions is primarily due to coal-fired power plants being phased out in North America and Europe in favor of wind, solar and natural gas.  Natural gas, while a fossil fuel, emits about half the carbon compared to coal.  Unfortunately, China and India are still building coal plants, although China also has aggressive plans to ramp up solar capacity.

Little progress has been made on curbing carbon emissions from transportation sources, which account for a little less than a third of transportation emissions.  About 60% of transportation emissions come from “light duty” vehicles (i.e., cars).  Electric vehicles reduce carbon emissions, but the extent to which that is the case is greatly debated.  [Click here for a discussion of extent to which EVs reduce carbon emissions reductions.]

It is interesting that there is relatively little discussion of old-fashioned conservation.  In his seminal book Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air, David MacKay identified conservation as the most likely strategy for meaningful, short-term carbon emissions reduction.  The fact that we have vehicles, appliances and homes that use less energy has certainly contributed to the slowing of carbon emissions in the last decade. Whether we will ultimately look back on 2019 as the year of peak carbon emissions is obviously an open question.  But time and time, human beings have overcome apocalyptic predictions of the likes of Thomas Malthus and Ann and Paul Ehrlich.  I’m betting we do again.

1  Storrow, Benjamin, “Global CO2 Emissions Were Flat in 2019 – But Don’t Cheer Yet”, Scientific American, February, 2020.

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