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Smokestacks of a Philadelphia refinery. (Source: Creative Commons)

Smokestacks of a Philadelphia refinery. (Source: Creative Commons)

Though the world economy grew in 2014, it was not accompanied by an increase in global carbon dioxide emissions. This is the first time this has happened in 40 years.

There are some caveats but this news is, on the whole, pretty good.

On Friday, the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced that emissions of carbon dioxide from the global energy sector “stalled in 2014, marking the first time in 40 years in which there was a halt or reduction in emissions of the greenhouse gas that was not tied to an economic downturn.”

The IEA was originally founded in response to the oil crisis of 1973-’74 with the intent of monitoring the international oil market, promoting rational energy policies, improving the world’s energy supply and assisting in the integration of environmental and energy policies. In the 40 years since it’s been collecting data on carbon emissions, the agency has only recorded three instances in which those emissions fell or stalled compared to the previous year: the early ‘80s, 1992 and 2009. However, each of these instances occurred during a period of global economic weakness. 2014, by comparison, saw the global economy expand by three percent.

This is also heartening since, as Planet Experts reported in September, more carbon pollution was emitted in 2013 than any previous year. Scientists from the Global Carbon Project announced that countries emitted nearly 40 billion tons of carbon in 2013, 2.3 percent more than in 2012.

Glen Peters, one of the scientists working with the GCP said that if the trend held, emissions would increase by 2.5 percent by the end of 2014.

However, according to the IEA’s data, emissions in 2014 only reached 32.3 billion metric tons. The agency points to several factors for the reduction:

The U.S. Energy Information Administration has projected average energy use per person to decline in the United States from 2012 to 2040 due to “gains in appliance efficiency, a shift in production from cooler to warmer regions, and an increase in vehicle efficiency standards, combined with modest growth in travel per licensed driver.”

According to Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at the Harvard Kennedy School, Americans also have a surprising savior on their side when it comes to diminished carbon emissions: fracking.

Though a controversial practice that has led to scores of water contamination cases, Stavins told The Washington Post that the natural gas boom in the U.S. “has led to significant increases in dispatch of gas-fired electricity generation, relative to dispatch of coal-fired generation, as well as increased investment in new gas-fired electric generation capacity, and cessation of investment in new coal generation in the United States.”

frackingIt’s not all wine and roses for the fracking business, however. While natural gas production has cut the emission of carbon in the U.S., it hasn’t stopped the emission of methane. Methane, which is 20 times more potent than carbon at storing heat energy from the sun (thus contributing to global warming), is not only produced during oil and natural gas drilling, it also leaks from wells that have been decommissioned or abandoned. A study has also found that cities like Boston are emitting twice as much methane as previously believed due to outdated infrastructure and faulty appliances.

On the flip side, however, Stavins notes that the U.S. transportation sector has become more efficient as states like California are putting a price on carbon and creating economic consequences for releasing it into the atmosphere.

So, while the globe still needs to deal with its methane problem, carbon-wise we merit at least a pat on the back. Upon announcing the reduced CO2 emissions for 2014, the IEA’s Chief Economist Fatih Biro said, “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.”

It’s a start, anyway.

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