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Did We Just Halt the Growth of Atmospheric CO2?

by on 2015/03/20

A recent press release from the International Energy Agency has some apparently promising news:

global emissions of carbon dioxide from the energy sector stalled in 2014

So is this time to pat ourselves on the back?

What did the Researchers Say?

First of all, the report that this press release is referring to isn’t available yet (it is expected to be published in June), so we don’t have the details on how the researchers came to this conclusion.  The only evidence we really have is from the following sentence in the press release:

Global emissions of carbon dioxide stood at 32.3 billion tonnes in 2014, unchanged from the preceding year.

At first blush, this is hardly enough evidence to suggest that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have levelled off.  It could simply be a pause on the way to further growth in 2015.  Note that the press release says “stalled”, not “halted”.  There’s an important distinction there. On the other hand, this should be weighed with the fact that economic growth didn’t stall in 2014.  This appears to be the first year on record that CO2 emissions and economic growth are “decoupled”.  When emissions have stalled or shrunk in the past, it’s been because of economic slowdowns and depressions reducing activity, rather than good behaviour.  This latest result suggests that we can have a productive technological civilisation without making the planet uninhabitable, which is rapidly becoming a big concern.

What did the Media Say?

So far, the media have reported this situation very faithfully, mostly because the facts are a little thin on the ground, and will remain so until June, when the report in question is published.  BBC News and the New Scientist take a measured view, and note that these figures are preliminary.  New Scientist go to Prof. Corrine Le Quéré at the University of East Anglia for comment, and she notes that this trend may be caused by a combination of low oil prices and warmer temperatures.  She goes on to say that several years of reducing or level emissions would be required to confirm that climate change policies are having an impact on global emissions. The Guardian suggests that China’s reduced economic growth is the cause of the trend, which would shoot holes in the idea that emissions and economics were decoupled.  The Daily Mail also consider the story carefully, and go to the British Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Davey, for comment.

The Bottom Line

This is very early days – the full report isn’t out yet, and even when published, it will not provide enough evidence to firmly conclude that we have a handle on our global carbon dioxide emissions.  If this trend of levelled – or better still, decreasing – emissions continues for several years, then we might able to pat ourselves on the back as a species. However, although the data remains inconclusive, it is pointing in a very hopeful direction, and as many outlets have noted, this news might provide a good starting point for the next UN climate change conference in Paris. Let’s hope that the emission figures continue to look promising in the years to come.

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