By Mark H Burton

It can be difficult to form a view of what’s really going on in our atmosphere, given the amount of information and of contradictory claims. This piece concerns recent reports on global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and levels. On 16th March, a Guardian headline over an article by John Vidal said: Surge in renewable energy stalls world greenhouse gas emissions

That sounds good, doesn’t it. But at best, the claim is only partly true. The article is actually about energy-related emissions. . Now this is clear enough if you read the article carefully, “Preliminary data for 2015 from the International Energy Agency (IEA) showed that carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector have levelled off at 32.1bn tonnes”.

Yet the previous sentence says: “Falling coal use in China and the US and a worldwide shift towards renewable energy have kept greenhouse gas emissions level for a second year running, one of the world’s leading energy analysts has said.” And here is the clue: the “leading energy analyst” is none other than Fatih Birol, Director (and former chief economist) at the International Energy Agency. The IEA was terribly slow in waking up to the promise of renewables and still maintains a thoroughly orthodox position on the relationship between economic growth and emissions.

The article on the IEA website that the Guardian is referring to has the headline:
Decoupling of global emissions and economic growth confirmed, although the subheading again makes it clear that it was “energy-related emissions of CO2 [that] stalled”. And Birol is quoted as saying: Coming just a few months after the landmark COP21 agreement in Paris, this is yet another boost to the global fight against climate change.” This would indeed be good news, but let’s take a look at the data.

Here is the IEA graph:

IEA energy emissions 160316_CO2_gr

It shows a reduction in energy-related emissions after the Great Financial Crash (sanitised as the “Global economic downturn”) and then a rising trend, leveling out in the last two years. They attribute this largely to reductions in coal use in both China and the USA. Worryingly, they note that “The decline observed in the two major emitters was offset by increasing emissions in most other Asian developing economies and the Middle East, and also a moderate increase in Europe.”

This might suggest that the triumphant tone is misplaced. To what extent are these changes temporary? To what extent might they be overtaken in years to come as cheap oil and gas continues to be exploited? To be sure the increase in Chinese renewables from 19% to 28% of electricity generation in four years is to be welcomed, as is the 10% decrease in coal, but as the New Climate Economy (a cheerleader for economic growth decoupling from emissions) reported on p. 17 of its report last year, even as late as 2030, fossil fuels globally are projected to increase by 64GW annually.  In the case of China, the 5 year plan meanwhile forecasts that “Energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP will be reduced by at least 3.4% and 3.9% respectively”, while “GDP is projected to grow by 6.5-7%”.  So the Chinese themselves are effectively stating that there will be no decoupling.  And research on the extent of methane leaks from US shale gas production, that could wipe out other energy emission reductions ,also indicate that it is a little early to celebrate.

These figures, it should be noted, represent the flow of CO2, from one source, into the atmosphere. However we are dealing with a system of flows, from other sources such as changes in land use and into carbon sinks in land (chiefly biomass) and sea: the interactions between these flows, over time, determines the stock of GHGs in the atmosphere (see this article for a longer discussion).

Let’s now look at the total global CO2 concentrations (the stock) to see whether the these are stalling too. It should be noted that the decoupling advocates are not claiming that these are reducing: their claims concern enissions, but the relationship between GDP and total global concentrations is what, in the final analysis matters, for it is the total concentrations, and its drivers that will determine the fate of our climate. Only 6 days before the John Vidal IEA piece, The Guardian carried this headline:
CO2 levels make largest recorded annual leap, Noaa data shows

Noaa is the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The subheading was also grim: “The last time the Earth saw such a sustained increase was over 11 millennia ago”. Here is the global trend from a global network of monitoring centres:

There is no sign of a decline there. If we look at the annual increases, again there is no sign of any decline.

Noaa co2 annual increases

Graph by author from Noaa data

What does this tell us?

1) It shows that any suggestion that GHG emissions are stalling is not supported with solid long term evidence. Only the flow of emissions from electricity generation is doing that, and it is by no means clear that this is a durable trend. We hope it is, but it might not be, and anyway it isn’t enough because overall emissions are increasing.

2) Since energy-related emissions have not increased for the last two years, then other emission sources must be increasing at a greater rate. There are several components to this. Firstly emissions from human activity other than fuel combustion – e.g. cement manufacture (other than fuel use) and waste disposal. Secondly, release of GHG’s from sources such as forest fires, permafrost thawing, soil degradation, and ocean stores (this includes the indirect results of human activity). (For a full dataset, see here). Thirdly, there has been an exacerbation by this year’s El Niño event (but we have to ask why El Niño is so strong this time)..

3) As for the claim that economic growth and GHG emissions have decoupled, look at this graph:

It shows levels of atmospheric CO2 (again from Noaa) and global GDP (IMF) over a 45 year period.

World GDP and CO2 trends

Graph by author from Noaa and IMF data

Here is the same data with each measure plotted against the other to show the association between them.

World GDP and CO2 association

Graph by author from Noaa and IMF data

The thin line is the line of best (linear) fit. You don’t get better associations than this: the shared variance is nearly 99%.

In the first graph, however, the GDP line is steeper than the emissions line, possibly indicating the well-known phenomenon of relative decoupling. We However, as discussed previously, CO2 levels are still growing with GDP even though the economy gets more efficient in its energy use. But as Jevons demonstrated in the nineteenth century, that reduction of energy intensity of economic activity leads to greater overall economic output, thus compounding the problem: the more that is saved, the more growth there is and therefore the more emissions.

It could be objected that data on levels of CO2 is not relevant to evaluating the claim that emissions have decoupled from GDP.  However, it is clear that levels are increasing.  Where from?  We would have to look to the totality of emissions that originate from human activity, which corresponds (if crudely) to GDP.  Although global GDP growth is slower than it once was, it continues nevertheless.  To look at the association between increases in levels of CO2 and increases in GDP is, thereby, relevant to the decoupling hypothesis, even though the proponents of decoupling are not claiming that CO2 levels are decreasing.

So, yet again, claims that GDP growth has decoupled from carbon emissions are shown to be mere propaganda. And as February’s CO2 figures showed, we are in a very scary place indeed. It is incumbent on all of us to try to understand these relationships and to resist the tales told by those with vested interests in the current destructive system and struggle for an economy that is viable, ecologically as well as socially and economically..

This article was first published on the Steady State Manchester website under a creative commons licence and has been revised on 29 March to a) correct the original text which wrongly stated that the IEA data in graph 1 only covered emissions from electricity generation, and b) to clarify further the relationship between the flow of emissions and the stock of CO2 levels in the atmosphere.


Mark H Burton is part of the Steady State Manchester collective, which promotes the ideas of post-growth, steady state, ecological economics, applying them to the very challenging reality of the world's first industrial city, Manchester, and its region. He has a background in ecological activism and international solidarity campaigns, psychology and public service management and is also Visiting Professor at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Comments ( 3 )

  • Norman Pagett says:

    Quote from above………..It is incumbent on all of us to try to (—-) struggle for an economy that is viable, ecologically as well as socially and economically..

    The danger lies in that one word—“economy”
    Economy implies trade, one with another, at the singular level, as well as communal. As the function of us at that singular level must by definition imply survival (as nature forces us to do), then any economic trade must be to gain a profit in order to improve our individual chances of survival, and in particular for our offspring. We will not compromise our own genetic line in the service of a perceived “greater good”. We are not members of a hive or anthill.
    And no government decree or mass warfare is going to make us so. We emotionally revert to that concept of “economy” and imbue it with the shiny certainties of our present. Our economy will continue to support what we are, and what we desire our future to be. How can we be so sure about this? We need only look to history for proof: Edison, Ford, Daimler, Rockefeller, the Wright brothers, Gates and hundreds of others delivered all the “things” that brought us heat, light, health and defiance of the laws of gravity. Some of us recognize these as delusions, but we are pitifully few.

    The masses listen instead to the literally insane politicians who offer the certainty that prosperity is merely a matter of political will. Trump promises to remove EPA regulations, Corbyn in the UK talks about reopening coalmines.
    To quote again from above: we really are in a very scary place indeed.
    All in pursuit of employment and political control. That we are going to decline is not in doubt of course, but I think the manner of it is going to be very unpleasant.
    We will not submit to the communal good, because even the most basic “communes” throw up leaders. These leaders will also be ultimately self serving, (they too have no choice in the matter). This will drive resentment in those less favoured, and foment conflict. This is not mischievous cynicism, but fundamental human nature; something that “utopian downsizers” simply refuse to accept—believing instead in the innate goodness of human nature.

    If you want to believe that, take a look at the Trump rallies—there’s your human nature, baying for the blood of those it thinks is responsible for its current misfortunes. They are not open to discussion about CO2 emissions—they want their “good life” back, even if it means blasting the tops off mountains and burning every ounce of coal underneath them.
    Our existence depends on acquisition and use of energy in infinite forms,
    We cannot sustain any sort of ‘economy” by taking in each others washing and opening barber shops.

  • Mark H Burton says:

    Thanks for the comment. The first point is correct: electricity accounts for just under 50% of the energy emissions. I’ll correct this in a revised version of the post: it doen’t greatly affect the argument but it is important to be accurate.
    As to the second point, this is again the issue of flows versus stocks of GHGs. I’ll amend the text to make the distinction clearer. While the claims tend to be that it is emissions that have decoupled, the key point is that concentrations haven’t – or put another way, deep, deep reduction in emissions are necessary, and these are incompatible with continued GDP growth, which is what we are both saying.
    Thanks again for the critique – it is as you say important to be accurate and not over-claim, or we replicate the errors of the gorwthist propagandists.

  • Sam Bliss says:

    I agree that pinning our hopes on decreasing emissions the necessary 10% per year or so toward zero in the context of a growing economy is futile — implausible and undesirable. The spirit of this article is brilliant. However, the post contains a number of misinterpretations and misleading statements. For me, two of these are especially egregious.

    1. The numbers from the IEA are for ‘global energy-related CO2e emissions’ as is clearly stated in all their data, including this article. These emissions comprise much more than emissions from the electricity sector, as is claimed by the author of this blog post. Energy-related CO2e emissions also include combustion of fuel for heating, cooking, transport, industry, and other uses. The only emissions omitted are those from land use change, which are notoriously difficult to calculate.

    2. The notion that CO2 emissions and GDP growth have decoupled cannot be refuted with time series of GDP and atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Yes, the latter comparison is important — arguably more important — than the former, but none of the cited sources claim that ppm CO2 in the atmosphere has decreased, they are only discussing emissions.

    What we have as degrowthers is our credibility. Without exaggeration or any cherry-picking of data, we can show just how unlikely it is that the necessary reductions in emissions can be achieved at the same time as GDP grows. Even if emissions really are leveling off, even if they do begin to decrease at about 2% per year, the fact is that this pace of reduction is not nearly enough to save a stable climate. When combined with the evidence that economic growth is not making the rich happier or the poor richer, we have a pretty strong argument for the abandonment of economic growth as the primary goal of society.

    When we overstate our argument or miscategorize data, we make ourselves weaker by undermining our own credibility. Degrowth of course goes far beyond rational, liberal reasoning about the ‘best thing for society to do’ but since we CAN win that debate, we should! Yes, the IEA data might have big problems (especially with respect to numbers from China) and the exuberance for decoupling is both annoying and somewhat misguided. But I support presenting our case that economic growth and a stable climate cannot be compatible in a way that shows how the ‘radical’ concept of degrowth is in fact the only sane path!

The comments are now closed.