Why Keeping CO2 Emissions Stable Won’t Save Us From Climate Change

CO2 emissions were stable worldwide in 2016 as the global economy grew.

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Mar 17 2017, 6:23pm

Global carbon emissions have stayed stable for three years running, while the world's economy has grown—which sounds like great news. That was the conclusion of a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), a body with 29 member countries (including the US and Canada) that focuses on economic development, energy, and the environment. It released its latest findings, which 2016 figures, on Friday.

Even so, we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves. Last year was the hottest in Earth's recorded history, and 2017 has also seen its share of alarming climate change-related trends. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump is promising to push so-called "clean coal," yet declining use of coal is a major reason that greenhouse gas emissions are down.

A lot of people say the idea that coal can be "clean" is a myth to begin with. Others believe Trump will have his work cut out for him in pushing it forward. The idea is to capture and store carbon, but it's extremely expensive to do, and Trump has vociferously campaigned on the idea of cutting federal spending and slashing regulations.

Read More: The US Hasn't Seen Carbon Emissions This Low Since 1991

"Global emissions from the energy sector stood at 32.1 gigatonnes last year, the same as the previous two years, while the global economy grew 3.1%," according to the IEA's estimate. The two biggest CO2 emitters, the US and China, both saw declines—emissions in Europe stayed stable—and that managed to offset increases in other parts of the world.

The US saw the biggest drop of any country: CO2 emissions fell by 3 percent, thanks to a "surge in shale gas supplies and more attractive renewable power," which meant a reduced reliance on coal. Coal demand was down worldwide, but especially in the US—it dropped 11 percent in 2016, and for the first time, more electricity came from natural gas than coal.

Meanwhile, the US economy grew by 1.6 percent in 2016, suggesting that reduced emissions and economic growth can actually go hand-in-hand.

"It is surprising, and it comes as good news," environmental economist Joel Wood, an assistant professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops BC, told me. Natural gas has been relatively cheaper than coal over the past year, he added, which is part of the reason why.

"Coal is less attractive right now not necessarily because of federal policies," Wood explained. "It's more because of cheap natural gas," partly thanks to technological advances and abundant shale gas supplies. According to Wood, coal produces 960 grams of greenhouse gas emissions per kilowatt-hour of electricity, whereas natural gas produces only 440—about half.

IEA executive director Fatih Birol sees the new figures as a "cause for optimism," but we shouldn't get too excited. Birol added that we can't yet say whether CO2 emissions have actually peaked or not. And keeping our CO2 emissions stable won't be enough to stop us from seeing a 2℃ increase in global temperature, the report goes on to note.

Wood agreed. So far, governments have failed to put the kind of "binding and very stringent policies" in place that would actually bring us do zero carbon emissions, which is really where we need to be, he explained. I asked him whether better technologies (for example, cheaper batteries) could get us to that point. "That might be wishful thinking, without some kind of incentive through more government research and development funding," he said.

So let's not pat ourselves on the back for keeping carbon emissions stable in 2016, even as the economy grew. It will take pressure on governments to put better policies in place, soon.

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