As we are consistently warned, this is the make or break decade for climate change. What happens in the next ten years won’t decide whether we have a climate crisis or not – it’s too late for that. But it will decide how bad the coming century will be for the world’s most vulnerable people. It will determine the kind of world our children inherit, and the chances of civilization continuing as we know it.
The route to a safe climate is a steep downward curve in emissions, and yet we are not even headed in the right direction, let alone fast enough. We’re still making things worse. Global emissions have not yet peaked, and until they do, we haven’t even turned a corner on the onrushing environmental catastrophe.
You may remember that there was a possibility of a peak a couple of years ago, after emissions hit a plateau from 2014 to 2016. Then they bumped up again. Like the dip during the financial crisis, it was a blip in the trend rather than a turning point.
According to the IEA, we’ve hit another potential plateau moment. Emissions from energy were the same in 2019 as in 2018. Emissions fell substantially in Japan after they switched their nuclear power back on, and the US recorded a notable 2.9% fall. Despite the ‘Trump digs coal’ banners, the US has retired 32 gigawatts of coal power since he came to office, and that is putting a globally significant dent in their emissions.
Is this a hopeful sign? That might be a bit premature. The IEA certainly flagged the possibility of a peak, but this is just emissions from energy. It doesn’t include everything, and it wouldn’t take much – adding in emissions from cement, for example – to tip those static emissions back into a rise.
A lot can happen in the coming months that will determine whether this becomes a peak. The Coronavirus is already reducing emissions as industrial capacity is paused under quarantine situations, or flights are suspended. Much will depend on what the global economy does, and whether we enter a slowdown in growth. And of course, emissions are mainly falling in advanced economies. Energy policy in China and India is likely to make the biggest difference.
Despite the wild card factors, ultimately 2019 will be a peak in emissions if we make it one. And that’s as much as Fatih Birol at the IEA is claiming too: “We now need to work hard to make sure that 2019 is remembered as a definitive peak in global emissions, not just another pause in growth.”