Continuing to Decouple

Photograph by Carlos Barria - REUTERS

Photograph by Carlos Barria – REUTERS

For the third year in a row, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the energy sector remained level while the global economy grew. This continues to buck the economic thinking that economic growth, typically measured with gross domestic product (GDP), cannot be decoupled from environmental degradation. The current trend of decoupling GDP from CO2 emissions is largely due to the global growth of renewable energy use. Solar energy was the fastest growing source of renewables in 2016, while hydropower supplied the largest portion of global electricity demand growth of all the renewables. 

A recent report from PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency released September 28, 2017 found that of the five largest emitters, which account for 68% of global CO2 emissions, only India showed a significant rising trend of greenhouse gas emissions. China, the U.S., the E.U., Russia, and Japan all had flat or decreased greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. However, in a departure from the IEA report from March 2017, this report found that global emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions rose in 2016. Of these non-CO2 greenhouse gasses, methane emissions represented the largest portion—19% of global emissions. The primary sources of methane include fossil fuel production, cattle, and rice—a staple crop in the developing world.

Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile, another recent study released in September 2017 in Science revealed that a thinning of tropical forest density has led to a net carbon loss across every continent. This indicates that forests are no longer behaving as sinks because they have been degraded through logging, fire, and drought, among other factors. Forests provide a vast natural resource for developing countries yet increasing the sink capabilities of forests through afforestation, reforestation, and decreased forest degradation are among mitigation goals of these countries. This study highlights both the importance and the challenge of those goals. The international target of limiting warming to no more than 2˚C is unattainable without vast carbon sinks like these forests.

The decoupling of emissions from economic growth globally is cause for celebration. However, as seen with India, this trend is still tentative as developing countries work to increase economic growth, which could include increased agricultural production, forests use, and energy use. To continue decreasing global emissions, more work is required to assist the developing world with sustainable development. Increased methane emissions from the agricultural sector and increased CO2 emissions from loss of forest mass are among several challenges facing the developing world as they seek to grow. There are viable solutions to many of these problems. Yet these solutions require significant assistance and resources from the international community.

The developing world requires assistance in electrification and energy diversification in the way of hydropower and other renewables so the decoupling trend can continue. These countries also require capacity building to bolster forestry sector projects; the transfer of technology and best practices to assist with the growth of sustainable agriculture; and of course, continued mitigation efforts from developed countries.

Breaking up is decreasingly hard to do

Decoupling_sparkline_graphic_v2A common concern of developed and developing countries has been that breaking up the 19th and 20th century association of economic development and fossil fuels will lead to GDP decline.  Referred to as “decoupling,” economists have warned that economic growth would decline as climate change policy made carbon more expensive.

But last year the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that the global economy grew without increasing CO2 emissions — for two years in a row.

Now, new research from the World Resources Institute (WRI) delves more deeply into the country level dynamic.  According to WRI, 21 countries have decoupled their economic growth from carbon emissions since 2000.  More specifically, GDP has risen in these countries while carbon pollution has declined over the past 15 years, resulting in about a billion tons of lowered emissions.

Countries on the list are mostly EU members who, as parties to the Kyoto Protocol, legally bound themselves to reduce GHG emissions during the first (2008-12) and second (2013-2020) commitment periods.  The more well known examples of France, Germany, Sweden, and the UK are complemented by the less obvious contributions of Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Romania, and Slovakia.  Non-EU member but Kyoto Protocol signatory Switzerland also makes the list, as do Ukraine and Uzbekistan.  Notably, the U.S. figures among these 21 countries who have decoupled economic growth from CO2 emissions — the only major economy not to join the Kyoto Protocol.

The WRI notes that no “single formula, policy or demographic trend” has brought about this GDP-GHG decoupling.  Some of these countries have used policies to tax carbon or rapidly scale up renewable energy, while others have experienced shifts in their economies away from emissions-intensive industries.  More than 90% reduced the industrial sector share of their economies (which means that there’s potential for “leakage” of these emissions to other developing/industrializing countries not on this list).

For more detailed analysis at the country level, read here.