The challenge, as ever, at the big U.N. climate summit this December in Paris will be to figure out how to curb global greenhouse gas emissions without poleaxing the economy. Now, the International Energy Agency thinks there is a way to square that circle and put the world on track to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
In a new report, the IEA said that for the first time in modern history, the world is showing that economic growth and emissions need not go together. With a little more effort, especially to phase out fossil fuels and invest in clean energy, countries such as the United States, China, and India could lock in those promising developments. With such a “bridge plan” in place, the world’s energy-related greenhouse-gas emissions could peak as soon as 2020, the IEA said, much earlier than currently expected. That alone would not be enough to limit temperature increases to 2 degrees Centigrade, the world’s official target, but would help make it possible.
The IEA’s note of optimism contrasts with the agency’s gloom just a few years ago, and comes right as the issue is gaining fresh urgency. Countries around the world are preparing their own national plans for reducing emissions over the next decade, laying the groundwork for the big Paris conference. And Pope Francis on Thursday will release an eagerly awaited papal encyclical highlighting the world’s need to rise to the climate challenge. (An Italian magazine published on Monday what the Vatican called a draft version of the 192-page call to action.)
The IEA, the energy think-tank of the rich-country club Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, underscored the importance of the apparent break between growth and emissions, which had in decades past been inexorably linked. OECD countries — the industrialized West, Japan, and South Korea — grew almost 2 percent last year, while their emissions fell 2 percent; even developing countries such as China are getting in on the act.
“The signs of a decoupling between energy-related emissions and economic growth in some parts of the world are encouraging — for the first time in 40 years, a halt or reduction in total global emissions has not been associated with an economic crisis,” the IEA noted.
Right now, the world is on track to keep increasing global emissions until at least 2030. Some countries, including the United States, Russia, and those in the European Union, have already submitted to the U.N. their formal national climate pledges through 2025. Others, such as China, have outlined their energy and climate policies over the same period. Taken together, they are simply not enough to move the needle: Emissions reductions expected to be made by the United States, Europe, and Japan, for example, will be offset by increased emissions from India and China, the IEA estimated.
That’s why the agency is urging participants at the Paris conference to lock in the structural changes in the global economy and finish the job of separating growth from pollution. The IEA laid out a short-term policy “bridge” that could carry the world from today’s dirty energy mix to one that delivers the same economic growth with a lot fewer emissions. It would require extra effort in five areas: more energy efficiency, removing subsidies for fossil fuels, phasing out old, inefficient coal plants, investing more in renewable energy, and curbing methane emissions. That would lead to emissions cuts 8 percent greater than what’s already expected, and would mean that energy sector’s greenhouse-gas emissions “would peak and then begin to decline around 2020.” Best of all, the IEA says, those environmental gains would not reduce global economic growth one bit.
Locking in that cleaner economy is especially important for China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. In recent years, driven by concerns over choking air pollution, Beijing has made huge strides at cleaning up its economy. One recent study suggested China could stop increasing emissions within a decade, ahead of the Chinese government’s own timetable. Crucially, in 2014, the Chinese economy grew at a healthy clip while emissions did not.
That might indicate that the Chinese economic rebalancing away from heavy industry to services is paying dividends. Or it might just be the fruits of a very wet year, in which hydroelectric power supplanted dirty coal. The IEA says its five-step program could ensure that kind of cleaner growth is a feature, not a bug. Embracing the policies, it says, would keep China on track for the next decade at least, “enabling a near doubling of the economy with an almost flat emissions trajectory.”