Emission Peak Could Be as Fickle as the Weather

This week, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its update on energy-related CO2 emissions for 2019. The big headline was that emissions stayed flat between 2018 and 2019 at 33 gigatons (GT) of CO2 despite global economic growth of 2.9 percent. This is a positive sign for all those dismayed by the growth of global CO2 emissions over the last three years. Indeed, the IEA voiced its hope that CO2 emissions might have finally, finally peaked. However, a careful look at recent history shows two things: (1) emissions peaks and even declines have happened in previous years, and (2) much of 2019’s flatline can be attributed to mild temperatures.
Looking at the chart below, global CO2 emissions have flatlined, which in real-time raises questions about peaking, three previous times since 1990 and declined two times. In 1992-1993 and 2013-2016, there was a several-year run of flat or declining emissions. The underlying factors matter a lot, of course. The early 1990s were before the onset of rapid economic growth in China and the period after 2007 was during a time of global economic slowdown post-financial crisis. But the early 2010s were perhaps the first time in this period for speculation that emissions had peaked for good and that GDP growth was decoupled from emissions increase. That turned out not to be the case. So, whether 2019 will the peakiest of all peaks is very much an open question. 


Right now, it unfortunately looks like almost half of the reason for the flatline is attributable to milder weather. Taking a closer look at emissions between 2018 and 2019—non-OECD emissions grew by 400 million tons (Mt), while OECD emissions fell by 400 Mt. The IEA also says overall emissions were 150 Mt lower due to milder weather in some of the world’s major economies. That’s a pretty sizeable chunk of the absolute difference in emissions. Taking into consideration that the IEA also attributes a slowdown in emissions growth in some non-OECD economies to lower economic growth (exact figure not given), the stall in emissions growth looks at least as much due to external factors as an energy transformation. It is still early, but these trends may bode well for 2020, which has not only been a mild weather year so far but has also seen an aggressive pandemic eat into early expectations for fossil-intensive energy demand growth.
The upside is that much of the decline in OECD emissions comes from continued growth in wind and solar, additional coal to gas switching, and increases in nuclear power.

Sarah Ladislaw

Sarah Ladislaw

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program