Cautious Hope: Global CO2 Emissions Remain Flat in 2015 while Renewable Energy Surges

, lead economist and climate policy manager | March 16, 2016, 2:54 pm EDT
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This post is a part of a series on The Paris Climate Agreement

New data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) released today show that, for the second year in a row, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have remained flat at 32.1 billion tonnes in 2015.

This is in large part due to a huge increase in renewable energy deployment, led by China and the United States. Coming off the Paris Agreement, these trends are cause for hope that we are making progress toward addressing climate change. Now we need to bend that emissions curve sharply downward!

IEA CO2 data

A record year for renewable energy globally

Earlier this year, data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance showed that clean energy investments reached nearly $330 billion in 2015. With 64 gigawatts (GW) of wind and 57 GW of solar PV installed in 2015, global renewable energy capacity additions were at an all-time high last year and grew 30 percent over 2014 levels. China and the United States led the pack, as has become the norm, with $110.5 billion and $56 billion in clean energy investments respectively.

Significant renewable energy progress in the United States and China

Today’s news comes in the context of other hopeful developments in two major emitting countries, China and the U.S.

According to data from the EIA, U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions fell 2.4 percent in 2015. This is due to a combination of factors, including increased energy efficiency, and a shift away from coal to cleaner generation sources like natural gas and renewable energy.

Wind energy was the #1 source for new electric capacity in 2015, with 8,600 megawatts (MW) installed. Solar PV grew by 16 percent in 2015 to reach 7.3 GW, the largest annual total ever. In total, renewables provided more than 70 percent of new electric capacity in 2015.

Wind and solar capacity additions together outpaced every other source (including natural gas) in 2015, and are projected to do the same in 2016.

New US electricity generation capacity additions

The recent extension of the production tax credit for wind and the investment tax credit for solar energy will provide a welcome boost to the deployment of these resources and additional CO2 reductions.

Meanwhile, China’s emissions declined by 1.5 percent in 2015. Data from the National Bureau of Statistics shows that China’s coal consumption fell 3.7 percent in 2015, building on a drop of 2.9 percent in 2014. Installed grid-connected wind power capacity additions grew by 34 percent and solar by 74 percent.

Cutting CO2 emissions while maintaining economic prosperity

The data also show that the hopeful emissions trend in 2015 comes alongside a period of global economic growth, unlike previous times when emissions have flattened as a result of global economic downturns. (An earlier study released at the end of last year, before the final data were in, had projected a potential small—less than 1 percent—dip in CO2 emissions for 2015 and attributed that mainly to a drop in China’s emissions.)

Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that China’s economy is slowing down and that has likely played a role in its emissions drop. Also, the shift away from coal has led to recent announcements of massive worker layoffs. More will need to be done in China, the United States, and globally to help ensure a just transition to a clean energy economy, with assistance for displaced workers and communities that are affected.

There are big economic opportunities ahead for countries that assertively embrace the clean energy future. Initiatives like Mission Innovation and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition are just a few ways in which countries and businesses are stepping up to the plate. And the shift away from coal will pay massive dividends in reducing pollution that causes a heavy public health burden.

Important cautions about the IEA data

A note of caution that today’s data from the IEA only pertain to CO2 emissions and do not cover other global warming emissions. For example, methane emissions are on the rise globally, with the U.S. likely playing a large part in that. U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy recently said in a recent blog post: The new data show that methane emissions are substantially higher than we previously understood. Changes in the global land and ocean carbon sinks also affect the magnitude of climate change, and are not covered by the IEA data.

This matters even more because the U.S. power sector is undergoing a major shift away from coal toward natural gas. In 2015, the share of coal and natural gas in electricity generation was approximately a third each, and natural gas is likely to slightly edge out coal in 2016. This over-reliance on natural gas comes with climate risks, since it is still a fossil fuel and also has associated methane emissions (which are clearly being underestimated currently).

We’ll need to implement a robust set of policies to cut global warming emissions dramatically in line with what the science shows is necessary. Here in the U.S. that includes progress on implementing the Clean Power Plan and state policies to advance renewable energy, increasing fuel efficiency standards, increasing energy efficiency across the board, cutting methane emissions, policies to safeguard our land-based carbon sinksputting a price on carbon, and, frankly, greatly ratcheting up ambition on all fronts.

Delivering on the Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement sets a necessarily high bar for global climate action. Countries agreed to a goal of:  “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.”

And to meet this goal they would:

“…aim to reach global peaking of global warming emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.”

The good news is that the 2015 data show that it’s possible to get on this ambitious pathway. But we’ll need to do a lot more to deliver on the promise of Paris, and the U.S. and China have a special leadership role in that endeavor. Ultimately, this is about limiting the magnitude of climate impacts and taking advantage of the huge economic opportunities of a clean energy economy.

For us in the U.S., this is why we need the next U.S. president to take on climate action as a major priority.

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