Critical ‘decoupling’

1st April 2016 By: Terence Creamer - Creamer Media Editor

Critical ‘decoupling’

A new International Energy Agency (IEA) analysis of global energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions points to what it calls a “decoupling” of greenhouse-gas emissions from economic growth.

The audit, which was released in March, shows that emissions remained flat in 2015, notwithstanding global economic growth during the year of over 3%. Global CO2 emissions were recorded at 32.1-billion tonnes in 2015, which was more or less in line with emissions recorded in 2013 and 2014.

The report follows the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP 21, which was held in Paris, France, and where a global agreement was struck to limit global warming to 1.5 °C compared with preindustrial levels.

The agreement is expected to further spur low-carbon energy technologies and improve prospects for the roll-out of energy efficiency solutions. COP 21 is also expected to result in the introduction of global carbon pricing, either through taxes or market-based instruments, and to make investments in fossil fuel power projects more risky, unless there are associated mechanisms to either capture carbon or compensate for the emissions.

The IEA attributed the 2015 trajectory partly to the rising role of renewable energy, with renewables accounting for around 90% of new electricity generation in 2015.

“In the more than 40 years in which the IEA has been providing information on CO2 emissions, there have been only four periods in which emissions stood still or fell, compared with the previous year. Three of those – the early 1980s, 1992 and 2009 – were associated with global economic weakness,” the agency said in a statement.

It argued, therefore, that the recent stalling in emissions was significant, as it came amid global growth of 3.4% in 2014 and 3.1% in 2015, as calculated by the International Monetary Fund.

“The two largest emitters, China and the US, both registered a decline in energy-related CO2 in 2015. In China, emissions declined by 1.5%, as coal use dropped for the second year in a row.”

Coal generated less than 70% of Chinese electricity, ten percentage points less than had been the case in 2011. Over the same period, low- carbon sources jumped from 19% to 28%, with hydro and wind accounting for most of the increase.

In the US, emissions declined by 2%, as a large switch from coal to natural gas use in electricity generation took place.

However, increasing emissions in most other Asian developing economies and the Middle East, together with a moderate rise in Europe, offset the decline observed in the two major emitters.

It is going to be interesting to see how this trend evolves, particularly in light of the COP 21 agreement.

For South Africa, which has made a challenging peak-plateau-decline emissions commitment, it will be hard to justify any major bucking of the trend. Honouring that commitment, however, could have major implications not only for the future energy mix, but also for the future price of electricity.