Global Carbon Emissions are Flat


About a year ago, the International Energy Agency announced some important news. Although the global GDP grew by 3.4% in 2014, greenhouse gas emissions due to energy use did not increase! We spewed 32.3 gigtonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning stuff to produce energy—just as we had in 2013.

Of course, leveling off is not good enough. Since carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere essentially ‘forever’, we need to essentially quit burning stuff. You can’t stop a clogged sink from overflowing by levelling off the rate at which you pour in water. You have to turn off the faucet!

But still, it’s a promising start.

And now the IEA is saying the same thing about 2015. While the global GDP grew 3.1% in 2015, we spewed just 32.1 billion gigatonnes of CO2 into the air by burning stuff to make energy. So these carbon emissions are flat or even slightly down from 2014!

The IEA put out a press release about this:

• International Energy Agency, Decoupling of global emissions and economic growth confirmed, 16 March 2016.

and here is some of what it says:

“The new figures confirm last year’s surprising but welcome news: we now have seen two straight years of greenhouse gas emissions decoupling from economic growth,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. “Coming just a few months after the landmark COP21 agreement in Paris, this is yet another boost to the global fight against climate change.”

Global emissions of carbon dioxide stood at 32.1 billion tonnes in 2015, having remained essentially flat since 2013. The IEA preliminary data suggest that electricity generated by renewables played a critical role, having accounted for around 90% of new electricity generation in 2015; wind alone produced more than half of new electricity generation. In parallel, the global economy continued to grow by more than 3%, offering further evidence that the link between economic growth and emissions growth is weakening.

In the more than 40 years in which the IEA has been providing information on CO2 emissions, there have been only four periods in which emissions stood still or fell compared to the previous year. Three of those—the early 1980s, 1992 and 2009—were associated with global economic weakness. But the recent stall in emissions comes amid economic expansion: according to the International Monetary Fund, global GDP grew by 3.4% in 2014 and 3.1% in 2015.

The two largest emitters, China and the United States, both registered a decline in energy-related CO2 in 2015. In China, emissions declined by 1.5%, as coal use dropped for the second year in a row. The economic restructuring towards less energy-intensive industries and the government’s efforts to decarbonise electricity generation pushed coal use down. In 2015, coal generated less than 70% of Chinese electricity, ten percentage points less than four years ago (in 2011). Over the same period low-carbon sources jumped from 19% to 28%, with hydro and wind accounting for most of the increase. In the United States, emissions declined by 2%, as a large switch from coal to natural gas use in electricity generation took place.

The decline observed in the two major emitters was offset by increasing emissions in most other Asian developing economies and the Middle East, and also a moderate increase in Europe.

More details on the data and analysis will be included in a World Energy Outlook special report on energy and air quality that will be released at the end of June. The report will go beyond CO2 emissions and will provide a first in-depth analysis of the role the energy sector plays in air pollution, a crucial policy issue that today results in 7 million premature deaths a year. The report will provide the outlook for emissions and their impact on health, and provide policy makers with strategies to mitigate energy-related air pollution in the short and long term.

To download annual energy-related CO2 emissions data, click here.

To read last year’s announcement about CO2 emissions, click here.

Decarbonization since the Paris Agreement

Here’s an optimistic assessment of what’s been going since the Paris Agreement was sealed on 12 December 2015:

Paris Agreement 100 days on: The dawn of a new era?, BusinessGreen, 21 March 2016.

It’s mainly interesting to me because it has a passage with lots of links. I’ll quote that part:

Just days after the agreement, the Obama administration pulled off another coup extending renewable energy tax credits and effectively engineering an acceleration of the country’s renewable energy boom. China followed a few months later with a Five Year Plan that majored on environmental progress and further fuelled speculation the superpower’s coal use has already peaked. Canada continued its rehabilitation from climate villain to climate champion, inking a comprehensive bilateral agreement with the US to crackdown on methane emissions and put another stake through the heart of Arctic drilling plans. Sweden edged forward with plans for a carbon neutral economy, as Japan revealed plans to accelerate its emission reductions through to 2030. And the UK government, sadly still a byword for climate policy contrariness, revealed it would take the over-arching goal of the Paris Agreement and enshrine it in national law through a new target to build a net zero emission economy.

This global policy push, coupled with inexorable technological progress (witness the latest record-breaking solar cells and the blistering pace of improvements in energy storage technology), is working. Just weeks after the Paris Agreement the clean energy investment and greenhouse gas emission data for 2015 started to come in, and the stats were better than anyone could have expected. Clean energy investment reached a record $329bn, as it became increasingly clear renewables are now the generation option of choice in multiple markets around the world. In industrialised countries such as the UK emissions kept falling fast, while the IEA suggested emissions globally are remaining flat, despite increasing wealth.

These mega trends are inevitably being felt at the coal face, so to speak, of modern business. Since Paris, US coal giant Arch Coal filed for bankruptcy and Peabody Energy warned it may have to do the same. In the UK, mainstream energy trade body Energy UK delivered its own Road to Damascus moment, announcing its members were primed and ready to deliver a low carbon transition. Iberdrola, one of the few European utilities closely associated with a full bore commitment to decarbonisation, became one of the few European utilities to report decent financial results. The march of the divestment movement continued, as savvy investors all over the world have internalised the logic of the Paris Agreement’s goals and recognised that carbon intensive business models’ days are numbered. The flight from high risk coal assets gathered pace, just as the development of high risk oil assets slowed.

12 Responses to Global Carbon Emissions are Flat

  1. Patrice Ayme says:

    So the rate of burning has stopped augmenting? Great. But not the first time. Notice also that the price of oil (and gas, out of the US) was the highest in 2014-2015. Until it collapsed, a few months ago.

    We will see what happens in 2016, with a low oil price.
    Notice also that the sustainable energies investments amounts to .5%, a half of one percent of world GDP.

    Conclusion: a carbon tax is needed.

    On March 18, 2016, CO2 reached 407 ppm on Mona Kea in Hawai’i. The average for February, 405ppm was 5 ppm above a year ago.

    The total GreenHouse Gas ppm (including CH4, NO, NO2, Fluorocarbons) is approaching 500ppm. Antarctica will break up. Keep calm and proceed to high ground.

  2. nad says:

    As a reminder – a levelling off of CO2 together with the current temperature spike could also be seen as a pointer to another sort of possible global warming source.

    • The physics of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere is that it is predominantly a cumulative effect, as the CO2 has difficulty sequestering permanently in the oceans. Therefore, any slowdown in CO2 emissions will not show up immediately in the CO2 atmospheric concentration, nor in the AGW signal. That’s the nature of an integral response.

      Check the current data of man-made CO2 emissions versus CO2 atmospheric concentration. The former is perhaps leveling off but the latter is still increasing strongly.

      I also have a good appreciation for this behavior based on the CSALT model of global T that I have been working on, which has a model of CO2 sequestration.

  3. John Baez says:

    There’s more discussion of this blog post on G+. I don’t have time to copy all those comments over here, and I haven’t yet figured out how to make them show up here automatically. (It can be done!)

  4. james joyce says:

    The political parlance is a real turn off, Baez. Is it not possible to keep
    science disinterested and truthful?

    X Gigatonnes of CO_2 was mixed into the atmosphere.

    • John Baez says:

      You think “mixed” is less “political” than “spewed”? I don’t think anyone bothered to carefully mix the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It winds up getting mixed in, but I think “spew” is more accurate verb for this process:

      A more bloodless synonym would be “emit”, and I would say that in a scientific paper, but the word “emission” was getting used too often in this blog article.

      Saying that we’re “mixing” CO2 into the atmosphere would be a bit like saying that someone died after a bullet was “inserted” into their heart.

      • Except that smokestack probably isn’t spewing CO2 into the atmosphere as much as it is ultrafine particulate matter and steam – and the CO2 isn’t going into the upper atmosphere terribly much. If you want a picture of CO2 being spewed into the upper atmosphere, try contrails from jet aircraft. What you see is the water vapor crystallizing into ice, what you don’t see is the CO2. Figure each commercial aircraft has a fuel load of 10,000 gallons, or 40 tons, for each 3000 or so miles travelled, multiply that by the number of flights per day…

  5. nad says:

    John wrote:

    Of course, leveling off is not good enough. Since carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere essentially ‘forever’, we need to essentially quit burning stuff.

    Since last year some researchers have been claiming that they might convert CO2 from power plants into oxygen and carbon nanotubes by using rather little energy:

    Researchers assess power plants that convert all of their CO2 emissions into carbon nanotubes

    I don’t know much about the environmental friendliness of carbon nanotubes but it sounds at least as an interesting approach, so I wonder why I haven’t heard of many other researchers trying to confirm the claims. I found a review (behind paywall), but not much more.

    Is this due to my internet bubble?

    • John Baez says:

      Thanks for pointing this out! The problem with most plans to suck CO2 from the air or from power plant exhaust is that it seems very difficult to do at a large enough scale. At least these authors have studied the thermodynamics and a bit of the economics—that’s better than usual:

      The researchers’ assessment shows that, for every metric ton of methane fuel consumed, a conventional CC power plant produces $909 of electricity and emits 2.74 tons of CO2. In contrast, the proposed CC CNF [carbon capture carbon nanofiber] plant would produce about $835 of electricity, which is about 8% less than the CC plant. But the CC CNF plant would also produce about 0.75 tons of CNTs [carbon nanotubes], which is worth an estimated $225,000, and emits no CO2.

      I don’t know if this estimate takes into account how the price of carbon nanotubes would drop once we are producing about 10 gigatonnes of the per year! But at least they’re thinking big and suggesting that it could replace the existing steel and aluminum industries!

      • nad says:

        In 2006 blogger Alan Shalleck asked readers for discussing the method on the blog Carbon Dioxide Emissions to Carbon Nanotubes (Part 2).

        Reading his conclusions of this discussion reveals that the concrete realizations and the precise technology set-up make a huge difference:

        The general conclusion was that any CNT volume produced as a by-product of power production would be economically used everywhere in the lower end of the value chain … structural support, composite enhancement and reinforcing applications. Only single walled, modifiable and highly organized CNTs feed the higher value chain applications such as electronics and sensors.


        The consensus also predicted that the eventual reduction of CO2 emissions from CNT production would be substantial … just under 55% of the total CO2 power plant related emission output. One estimate was considerably higher.


        One conceptualized process used only 0.4% of the output of a normalized power plant to power the entire process.

        So the process used in this process uses up more energy than the above mentioned 0.4 %, but it apparently uses up all CO2 output and it allegedly produces carbon nanotubes of rather high grade quality, which could be at least eventually be sold (even as you point out the prices might degrade and modulo a -at least for me- unclear possible environmental hazard).

        Here is the link to the pay walled review:

        • Geoffrey S. Simate, Sunny E. Iyuke, Sehliselo Ndlovu, Clarence S. Yah, and Lubinda F. Walubita, The production of carbon nanotubes from carbon dioxide: challenges and opportunities, Journal of Natural Gas Chemistry 19 (2010), 453–460.

      • John Baez says:

        Thanks! I’ll have to look into this. I’ll try to blog about it.

        I find it disgusting that such information, which has a chance (even if slight) of helping save the planet, is pay-walled.

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