Stalled global energy emissions raise hope

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Renewable sources, like wind, are backed by governments

Carbon pollution levels stayed flat for the second year in a row last year new data show, even though the global economy kept growing, in a sign that efforts to tackle climate change may be bearing fruit faster than thought.

A surge in renewable power around the world was the main reason energy-related emissions stalled, the International Energy Agency has found, reflecting rising levels of clean power investment that last year reached a record $ 328.9bn globally.

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Over 90 per cent of new electricity generated last year came from renewable sources, the highest level seen since 1974, with half the growth coming from wind farms alone, according to the Paris-based monitoring organisation.

“This is unprecedented. This is huge,” Fatih Birol, IEA executive director, told the Financial Times. “This affects not only climate change but also fuel mix expectations globally.”

The data, due to be published on Wednesday morning, come a year after the agency reported global energy emissions unexpectedly stalled in 2014, marking the first time in 40 years this happened in the absence of a global economic downturn.

In past decades, carbon pollution from energy production, a leading cause of global warming, has only declined or halted in years when economic downturns have lowered demand for goods and energy.

However, emissions fell noticeably last year in both the US and China, the biggest carbon polluter for the last decade, even as both economies grew.

Emissions need to fall sharply globally, not just stay flat, if the goals of the international climate change accord — agreed by nearly 200 countries in Paris in December — are to be met.

The new pact aims to stop global temperatures rising more than 2C from pre-industrial times, but the world has already warmed by nearly 1C and 2015 was by far the hottest year since modern records began in the 1800s.

Coal continues to dominate global electricity supplies, accounting for a 39 per cent share of generation in 2015 compared with less than 24 per cent for renewables, mostly hydropower.

But in a possible sign of a global shift to greener energy, carbon dioxide emissions from the world’s energy sector stayed at just over 32bn tonnes last year, preliminary IEA estimates show.

This is virtually the same as in 2014, when annual energy-related emissions also failed to rise, even though the global economy grew more than 3 per cent in both years.

“This means the decoupling of global emissions and economic growth is now confirmed,” said Mr Birol.

The IEA said a year ago it was unclear if the 2014 stalling of emissions growth was a one-off occurrence, though subsequent research from other bodies suggested pollution in 2015 was likely to have stayed flat.

Chart: Annual renewables growth as share of total electricity growth

In China, emissions fell by 1.5 per cent last year as the world’s biggest coal consumer cut its use of the fossil fuel and continued shifting towards less energy intensive industries. The pace of China’s economic growth has also slowed.

Mr Birol said it was significant that coal power plants supplied just under 70 per cent of China’s electricity last year — 10 percentage points less than only four years earlier.

“For coal these numbers are a cold shower because coal [consumption] globally declined about 2.3 per cent and in the last 45 years for which we have data, we have never seen such a sharp decline except for the early-1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed,” he said.

Emissions fell by 2 per cent in the US, meanwhile, as low natural gas prices continued to drive a switch away from coal power.

However, countries in Asia, the Middle East and Europe saw their emissions rise and Mr Birol said lower coal and natural gas prices could spur some nations to stop supporting renewable energy as much as they have in the past.

That meant last year’s rise in renewable energy’s share of new global power generation should not be taken for granted, he said.

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