Spring, the season of new beginnings, also marked the beginning of something new. In March came data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) indicating global emissions of carbon dioxide from the energy sector stalled in 2014. This, according to the IEA, is the first time in 40 years there has been a halt or drop in emissions of greenhouse gas that was not tied to an economic downturn.
“This gives me even more hope that humankind will be able to work together to combat climate change, the most important threat facing us today,” IEA chief economist Fatih Birol said in the month of budding blooms and rising temperatures. Birol’s global organisation works to ensure reliable, affordable and clean energy, so this latest finding was particularly good news.
Global emissions of carbon dioxide stood at 32.3 billion tonnes in 2014, unchanged from the preceding year. The IEA data suggest efforts to slow climate change may be having a more profound effect on emissions than previously thought. The IEA attributes the halt in emissions growth to changing patterns of energy consumption in countries such as China.
In China, 2014 saw more generation of electricity from renewable sources such as hydropower, solar and wind, and less burning of coal. Meanwhile efforts in countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to drive sustainable growth seem to be doing just that – decoupling economic growth from emissions, according to the IEA.
Professor Corinne Le Quere, based at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in England, added to the IEA debate. “An important factor could be that China’s coal consumption fell in 2014, driven by their efforts to fight pollution, use energy more efficiently and deploy renewables,” she told the BBC. Efforts to reduce emissions elsewhere would have played a role, but there were more random factors such as the weather and oil, coal and gas prices, she added. Several factors, therefore, could have led to this welcome news. IEA has collected data on carbon dioxide emissions for 40 years, but there have been only three times when emissions stood still or fell against the previous year. And all were associated with global economic weakness: the early 1980s; 1992 and 2009. In 2014, however, the global economy expanded by 3%. The IEA insists “this is no time for complacency”, nor is it a time to “stall further action” on the environment.
The UK government’s former energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey, who was replaced after the general election this May, agreed back in March when the figures were first released. They proved green growth was achievable not just for Britain but for the world, he said.
“However, we cannot be complacent. We need to dramatically cut emissions, not just stop their growth. Getting a new global climate deal is absolutely vital, and the year ahead is going to be of critical importance. The UK must stay the course and continue to show strong, decisive leadership in Europe and globally.”
Need for caution becomes even more pronounced following another report, published three months later in June. Writing about this report in the British newspaper the Guardian Dr John Abraham, a professor of thermal sciences, drew attention to the recent talk of global warming on cable news and from online bloggers that suggested a hiatus or a halt to global warming.
Not so according Dr Abraham, who insists there is no halt and never has been. He drew attention to the report, called Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus. Lead researcher Dr Thomas Karl and colleagues looked at the near-surface temperature records and asked whether they really suggested a slowdown. The team took into account several factors.
For example they noticed ocean surface temperature measurements from floating buoys differed from those taken by ship-board sensors. The latter are often warmer than temperatures measured by buoys because of the heat generated by the ship engine. They also factored in historical changes to how ships measured surface temperatures and their effectiveness.
“The end result,” according to Dr Abraham in the Guardian, “is that temperature trends over the past 17 or so years have continued to increase with no halt. In fact, it has increased at approximately the same rate as it had for the prior five decades.” He adds: “What this new paper shows is that the warming in the recent years has not stopped and has not even slowed down.”
Dr Karl told the newspaper: “Considering all the short-term factors identified by the scientific community that acted to slow the rate of global warming over the past two decades (volcanoes, ocean heat uptake, solar decreases, predominance of La Niñas, etc) it is likely the temperature increase would have accelerated in comparison to the late 20th century increases. Once these factors play out, and they may have already, global temperatures could rise more rapidly than what we have seen so far.”
Even more need for caution on the issue is also due in part to uncertainty on the cause of the alleged pause in emissions. Is it due to national and international policies or economic forces? Back in China, for example, coal forms almost two-thirds of the energy mix. But reduction targets, better technology and a lull in heavy industry meant an 11% drop in coal imports in 2014 against 2013. In the UK meanwhile, greenhouse gas emission levels have been decreasing for the past 20 years, according to the government’s Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC).
DECC data also suggests the biggest reductions have been in the energy-supply sector due to a fall in use of coal and gas, while the waste-management sector has seen fewer emissions from landfill. While there is uncertainty on causes of the stalling increase in emissions – if indeed they have stalled – most experts agree it is too early to say whether any such drop will continue or be a temporary blip in what has been an upward trend for several years.
And even if emissions tumble over the next few years, warming is likely to continue at a rate not seen for hundreds of years. Another factor that may come into play, warns UK environmental consultancy Sustainable Direction, is growing concern “a reduction in carbon dioxide storage by the world’s forests and oceans will outweigh small reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – currently oceans lock away around half the carbon dioxide we emit, but as they become saturated the quantity they can draw down will decrease”.
Critics apart, IEA’s Fatih Birol is adamant his organisation’s research will give “much-needed momentum” to negotiators preparing to forge global climate deals in future, especially when the United Nations Climate Change Conference meets in Paris this December.