Economic Growth and Carbon Emissions Used to Go Together. In Some Countries, That’s Changing
At the U.N. Climate Summit, which will begin in Glasgow Oct. 31, nearly 200 nations from around the globe are expected to meet. The focus of the summit is on reaching agreement about how each country can reduce carbon emissions so that the world does not experience catastrophic climate change. The latest U.N. analysis, published Oct. 26, found that current pledges would lead to a disastrous 2.6°C average global increase in temperatures over the preindustrial era by 2100—well above the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting warming to 1.5°C. And that’s if they even meet those targets, which looks unlikely.
As negotiators head into COP26, they’re trying to balance climate action with their countries’ economic interests. To understand why many feel those are in conflict—even if they shouldn’t be—iYou can see how the rise in emissions has impacted our modern lives and economy. For almost 200 years starting in the late 1700s, when the widespread availability of coal powered the U.K.’s industrial revolution, countries that got rich did it by burning fossil fuels. Global economic activity was increasing, and so were the emissions. When emissions fall, it is usually because of something wrong. This could be the Great Depression or the Second World War. The energy crisis of 1970s. A reduction in emissions Chart from the 20th century Mirrors the fluctuations of the global economy.
Learn MoreYou can find this link: Here Are the Goals of the COP26 Climate Change Meetings—and Where the World Stands in Accomplishing Them
The relationship between the economy and emissions has been consistent in recent years. Emissions peaked in 2018, and then declined by 6% in 2019, before the pandemic. They are now back at near 2019 levels thanks to the recovery. For most emerging and developing economies, which industrialized later, emissions are still rising as the economy grows—including in China and India, the world’s largest and third largest emitters.
Some question the value of using economic growth as a measure of economic success—a growing GDP doesn’t take into account the wellbeing of a country’s citizens or environment, or how equitably wealth is distributed. But it’s clear that to make the fight against climate change politically viable, we need to cut emissions without major economic implosions. Luckily, that’s very feasible.
Over the last few decades, most of the world’s developed countries, including several major emitters, and some developing countries, have seen their emissions peak and begin to fall.In 32 countries, emissions and economic growth have been “absolutely decoupled,” meaning that the economy is still growing steadily as emissions fall.
“There are three main factors in how they did it. Which was most dominant depends on the country,” says Linus Mattauch, an economics professor at the Technical University of Berlin who specializes in the sustainable use of natural resources. First, humans’ use of energy has become more efficient over time; second, low and zero-carbon sources of energy have become cheaper to use than fossil fuels in many cases; and third, many governments have introduced deliberate climate policies, such as the E.U.’s carbon pricing system, which encourages businesses to transition to cleaner energy sources and technologies.
Wealthy countries still contribute much more per capita to global emissions—and they still bear much greater responsibilityOver the past 200 years, greenhouse gasses have been building up in the atmosphere. Their emissions reductions will have to be higher if the world is to achieve net zero.
But understanding why emissions have started to decrease in some countries—and why they’re not decreasing fast enough—can tell us a lot about where we need to go from here.
What major carbon-emitting countries have made a shift?
Except for economic crises and sudden drops in emissions, U.S. emissions have been rising steadily throughout most of the 20th Century. They reached their peak in 2005 and have fallen 14% over the years. The 2008 financial crisis Most likely, it was. Those policies, which were pursued by the states, cities, and businesses, also depresses emissions. Most analysts believe that the U.S. has seen a significant reduction in emissions since the rise of natural gases, which are a fossil fuel but emit 50% less carbon dioxide than coal. Because of the boom in fracking in 2000s, natural gas was very inexpensive in the U.S. In 2016, displaced coal as the country’s primary source for generating electricity. “Those market trends in the energy sector really did make a very large dent in emissions,” says Kelly Levin, who ledResearch on emission peaks for the World Resources Institute and is now chief of science, data and systems change at Jeff Bezos’s $10 billion Earth Fund.
The U.S. remains the world’s second-largest emitter (after China), generating 14.5% of global carbon emissions in 2019. Joe Biden set the goal of reducing emissions 50-52% from 2005 levels by 2030 and reaching zero emission by 2050. To get there, the U.S. will need to replace natural gas—which releases large amounts of the potent greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere—with clean energy like wind and solar to green the electric grid. Other sectors like transportation and manufacturing will need to be targeted by the government. These are more difficult to decarbonize that electricity.
The U.K.’s emissions peaked way back in the early 1970s, after which point global energy crises that decade triggered falls in emissions in line with other countries. The shuttering of the U.K.’s coal power industry in the 1980s—part of a controversial government effort to cut state spending and weaken labor unions—created a longer-lasting trend: it set the U.K. on a course to phase coal out more quickly than most countries, and replace them with renewables and gas, which each generate roughly Save 40% of the U.K.’s power as of 2019, compared toLess than 3%Coal. That cleaner energy mix—combined with a transition to a service-based economy from a carbon-intensive manufacturing one—has helped drive the U.K.’s emissions down by 44% since 1971 and by 38% since 1990. That’s It is faster than any major industrial country.CarbonBrief A climate news website.
The U.K. generated just over 1% of global CO2 emissions in 2019—though it’s worth noting that the country is responsible for a hefty 4.7% of all the CO2 emitted throughout history, and the gas lingers in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Boris Johnson, British Prime Minister, has promised to reduce emissions 78% below 1990 levels by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions in 2050. Similar to the U.S. this will require phasing off polluting natural gases and decreasing reliance upon fossil-fuel vehicles. It is also necessary to upgrade the heat- and insulation of its buildings. The U.K. houses some of Europe’s oldest. “leakiest” in western Europe.
Japan’s emissions peaked in 2013. They had been declining after the 2008 financial crisis, but the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster derailed the country’s decarbonization plans. The government responded to public concerns by reducing its nuclear power operation and closing down long-term plants. It instead relied on coal, oil and gas to make up the difference, which had long-lasting consequences for its energy mix. The return of a few nuclear plants and the limited expansion of renewables has begun to move the needle, with a 16% decline in Japan’s annual emissions since 2013. Japan was the world’s fifth largest emitter in 2019, with 3% of global emissions.
Yoshihide Sauga, Japan’s Prime Minister has promised a 46% reduction in oil consumption from 2013 levels to 2030. He also pledged carbon neutrality by 2050. A key priority will be transitioning the transport and manufacturing sectors, which help make Japan the world’s third largest consumer and import of oil, to clean technologies. Japan is also keen to develop renewable energy and nuclear power as well as decrease its dependency on natural gas.
The key turning point for Russia’s emissions trajectory came in 1991, with the collapse of the USSR. The resulting economic crisis led to mass deindustrialization, plunging millions into poverty and making their lifestyles less carbon intensive—average meat consumption, which had been 27% higher than Western Europe, TossedIt is. Emissions had dropped 47.6% since 1990, by 1997. The impact was felt beyond Russia’s borders: of the 19 countries whose emissions peaked by 1990, 16 were former Soviet Republics, according to Levin’s WRI analysis.
Russia, which has the highest emissions of any major emitter, is the exception to this rule. Although Russia’s emissions are not at their 1990 level, they are rising again. The country was the world’s fourth-largest emitter of CO2 in 2019. Russia has made significant investments in its oil-and gas industry, as well as its exports. 36% of Russia’s national budget is spent on fossil fuels. An analystTIME revealed this to them last week that a successful global phase out of fossil fuels would be an “existential threat” for the country. President Vladimir Putin has pledged to cut Russia’sTo reduce emissions 70% of 1990 Levels by 2030—and reach net zero by 2060—but given how steep the decline was after 1990, activists say that target would allow Russia to continue increasing its emissions for several more years.
The history of the pathway to reducing emissions
Every country will follow a different path to decarbonization, but what has happened in these major economies tells us several things about the world’s path to net zero. Mattauch believes that the most important thing is that economic growth does not have to be linked to growth in emissions. “The fundamental economic reason why it’s possible to decouple emissions and economic growth [in both major emitters and on a global level] is that most of our economic output is actually not from stuff that’s very energy intensive,” he says, with the services sector (including health, hospitality and education) contributing much more to global GDP.
Learn More The Most Important Climate Summit In Years Could Be Destroyed by Missing Leaders. Eyewatering hotel rates and an energizing pandemic could also be a problem.
The second lesson here is that developing countries can’t afford to take the same fossil-fueled path to development as developed countries did—and they don’t need to. “The technologies available today and the cost of them are wildly different than they were even in 2010,” says Levin, citing the rapid fall in the cost of renewable energies—which has been much quicker than analysts expected—and advances in widening access to electric vehicles. That means today’s developing countries should be able to pivot away from fossil fuels at an earlier stage of their development—particularly if they are provided with the climate finance that rich countries have promised them.
Third, the market forces that drove down prices for both natural gas and renewables are strong motors to reduce emissions. But they don’t move fast enough and they aren’t reaching enough sectors of the economy to get us to net zero at the pace we need to move. They need to be guided “by the right leadership, policies and institutions,” Levin says. “I do think that we underestimate the pace and scale of change that is possible. It does require nurturing. It’s not just going to happen on its own.”