I found a press release from the IEA in my mailbox:
Despite widespread expectations of another increase, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions stopped growing in 2019, according to IEA data released today.
After two years of growth, global emissions were unchanged at 33 gigatonnes in 2019 even as the world economy expanded by 2.9%. This was primarily due to declining emissions from electricity generation in advanced economies, thanks to the expanding role of renewable sources (mainly wind and solar), fuel switching from coal to natural gas, and higher nuclear power generation. Other factors included milder weather in several countries, and slower economic growth in some emerging markets.
As late as last December, the central expert prediction was for 0.6% growth. That’s a difference of 200 million tonnes of CO2 (or 54 million tonnes of carbon, or in my proposed unit, 27 cheopses. (1 cheops = the volume of the Great Pyramid at Giza = 2.5 million m3).
Now OF COURSE the figure is provisional, and the IEA don’t venture past the decimal point, so they are still technically right if it’s 33.1 or 32.9. We need confirmation from the full data in March, and from other teams of analysts like Grantham. Still, for now it’s the best figure available. Industrial emissions are not rising but flat.
To the rational Benthamite policymaker, the correction makes no difference. Flat emissions are still a path to collective suicide; postponing the date of final collapse by a year or whatever is not significant. We need to cut emissions, hard. To keep under 1.5 degrees C of warming, emissions would have to fall by 15% a year, starting in 2020. The IEA’s small correction does not change our policy problem materially, nor soothe our collective failure.
In human psychology, it’s very different. “Going up a little” and “not going up at all” are interpreted in different ways. The latter may be a turning point; the former is not. Perhaps we are primed by evolution to watch out for these: an exhausted prey animal giving up, or an adversary in some contest. Or ourselves. At all events, that’s how we choose to write plays, novels and histories.
In 2020, emissions may go higher again, or stay flat, or decline. Which one it is will determine our retrospective labelling of the 2019 result. If they decline – and in contrast to the 2015-2016 false start, keep declining – we will retrospectively call 2018 the peak and 2019 the turning point: the most important one in history.
The evidence is not quite neutral on this. There is a small clue in the timing. Until very late in the year, the 2019 data pointed to an increase. The drop came in the last quarter. An economic slowdown in China and India? Possibly. But it was not big enough to cut world growth from a normal 2.9% for the year. Perhaps the coal collapse in Europe and the USA sped up, and/or electricity demand in developing countries slowed as they converge with the OECD norm of stasis. If the structural factors outweighed the cyclical ones, we are on track to a modest decline in 2020. It is not silly to hope (and if you are so inclined, to pray) for this.
Footnote: the “higher nuclear power generation” highlighted by the IEA was mainly down to Japan finally restarting some of the nuclear reactors closed after Fukushima. This was a once-off and can’t be repeated. 2020 will be back to normal, with a few reactor openings in China almost balanced by closures of old ones elsewhere (pdf, Figures 6 and 7). To a first approximation, nuclear power is irrelevant to resolving the climate crisis. What we have is a useful addition to the low-carbon side of the ledger, that’s about it.