Here’s a reason for hope. The global economy is growing, but greenhouse gas emissions aren’t—which is exactly the kind of decoupling the Earth needs if we are to have any hope of avoiding the most catastrophic global-warming scenarios.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported on March 17 that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions were flat for a third year in a row, while global GDP rose 3.1%.
While emissions and growth have tracked each other for decades, the correlation between the two began to weaken in 2010. The dent in emissions growth comes as cheap renewable energy and natural gas displace coal, one of the most carbon-intensive fossil fuels. Even if the global CO2 growth rate were to emerge from negative territory, it would still have a way to go to catch up with the pace of global economic growth.
Global emissions from the energy sector hit at 32.1 gigatonnes last year. The United States and China, the world’s two largest emitters, saw carbon dioxide emissions decline, and Europe reported relatively stable emissions levels. Carbon emissions rose in most of the rest of the world, which is still rapidly industrializing.
Mirroring the global trend, the American economy has grown by 80% since 1992, while emissions have hit their lowest level since 1992. Last year, emissions fell 3% amid US economic expansion of 1.6%, reports New Scientist.
But the IEA has warned the trend is not enough to keep global temperatures from exceeding 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the point scientists expect to cause catastrophic drought, heat waves, heavy rains, flooding, and sea level rise. Scientists are predicting the oceans will rise at least 3 feet this century, inundating some coastal cities, and send temperatures soaring past historical averages. Global average warming edged past the 1.5°C mark in some months last year.
To cap the potential damage, the world needs more dramatic reductions in emissions, and fast.