'Remarkable' renewables touch the emissions brake

In what may be a sign of a more permanent slowdown, global emissions growth slowed markedly last year as renewables increased at an accelerating speed.

Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency

Actual global emissions of carbon dioxide reached a new record of 34.5 billion tonnes in 2012. Yet, the increase in global CO2 emissions in that year slowed down to 1.1 per cent, which was less than half the average annual increase of 2.9 per cent over the last decade.

This is remarkable, as the global economy grew by 3.5 per cent. This development signals a shift towards less fossil-fuel-intensive activities, more use of renewable energy and increased energy saving. Increases in fossil-fuel consumption in 2012 were 2.2 per cent for natural gas, 0.9 per cent for oil products, and 0.6 per cent for coal.

The share of the 'new' renewable energy sources solar, wind and biofuel increased at an accelerating speed: from 1992 it took 15 years for the share to double from 0.5 per cent to 1.1 per cent, but only 6 more years to do so again, to 2.4 per cent by 2012 (interactive presentation).

These are some of the main findings in the annual report Trends in global CO2 emissions, released overnight by PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. The report is based on recent results from the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research and the latest statistics on energy use and various other activities.

China, US and EU stll top emitters

Three countries/regions remain responsible for 55 per cent of total global CO2 emissions.

Of these three, China (29 per cent share) increased its CO2 emissions by 3 per cent, which is low compared with annual increases of about 10 per cent over the last decade. Although China's CO2 emissions per capita are comparable to those in the EU and almost half of the US emissions per capita, its CO2 emissions per US dollars in GDP are almost double those in the EU and the United States and similar to those in the Russian Federation.

In the United States (16 per cent share), CO2 emissions decreased by 4 per cent, mainly because of a further shift from coal to gas in the power sector. The European Union (11 per cent share) saw its emissions decrease by 1.6 per cent, mainly due to a decrease in energy consumption (oil and gas) and a decrease in road freight transport.

A more permanent slowdown?

The small increase in emissions of 1.1 per cent in 2012 (including a downward correction of 0.3 per cent for it being a leap year) may be the first sign of a more permanent slowdown in the increase in global CO2 emissions, and ultimately of declining global emissions, if:

(a) China achieves its own target for a maximum level of energy consumption by 2015 and its shift to gas with a natural gas share of 10 per cent by 2020;

(b) the United States continues a shift in its energy mix towards more gas and renewable energy; and

(c) in the European Union, member states agree on restoring the effectiveness of the EU Emissions Trading System to further reduce actual emissions.