Whichever way you spin it, Australia’s greenhouse emissions have been climbing since 2015


Tim Baxter, University of Melbourne

Let me explain how to see through the spin on Australia’s rising greenhouse emissions figures.

With the release today of Australia’s emissions data for the December 2018 quarter, federal energy and emissions reduction minister Angus Taylor has been more forthcoming than usual about the rising trend in Australia’s emissions.

There’s one small issue, though. Despite Taylor’s comments in which he sought to explain away Australia’s 0.7% year-on-year rise in emissions as a product of increased gas investment, actual emissions in the December quarter were in fact down relative to the September 2018 quarter. This is due mainly to the fact that people use much more energy for heating in the July-September period than they do during the milder spring weather of October-December.

Taylor, meanwhile, was discussing the “adjusted” data, which reveals an 0.8% increase between the two quarters.

This might all sound like minor quibbling. But knowing the difference between quarterly and annual figures, and raw and adjusted data – and knowing what’s ultimately the most important metric – is crucial to understanding Australia’s emissions. And it might come in handy next time you’re listening to a politician discussing our progress (or lack thereof) towards tackling climate change.




Read more:
Australia is not on track to reach 2030 Paris target (but the potential is there)


Highlighting the difference between quarters is problematic, because emissions data are what statisticians describe as “noisy”. Emissions levels jump around from period to period, which can obscure the overall trend.

Quarterly data is important for understanding how Australia is tracking more generally towards doing its fair share on reducing its emissions. But too much stock is put on the noise, and not enough on the underlying trend.

The charts below compare our estimated actual emissions on a quarterly basis (top) with the cumulative emissions for the year leading up to that quarter (here described as the “year-to-quarter emissions” and shown in the lower chart).

Quarterly emissions. (LULUCF stands for Land use, land-use change, and forestry.)
Dept Environment and Energy (data)
Year-to-quarter emissions. (LULUCF stands for Land use, land-use change, and forestry.)
Dept Environment and Energy (data)

These charts, both built on today’s data, make a few things clear.

Quarterly emissions are noisy

The first thing to note is that saying that our emissions are down compared with the previous quarter is hardly remarkable, or worth patting ourselves on the back for. This is especially true if we are comparing the December quarter data, released today, with the data for the preceding quarter.

September quarter emissions are almost always higher than the rest of the year. This is because, while September itself is in spring, the September quarter also covers July and August.

Our winter heating needs are generally met using fossil fuels, whether through electric heaters or natural gas, which is why the September quarter has the highest emissions. In the December quarter, which covers most of spring, our need for heating drops, and so do our emissions.

But if you look beyond the difference between quarters, as in the second chart above, you can see the underlying rising trend in our greenhouse gas emissions.

Cherrypicking the best metric

Readers who follow climate politics may remember the spectacular moment in March when Taylor appeared on ABC’s Insiders opposite Barrie Cassidy.

Many journalists, including those on the Insiders panel that day, responded at the time that Taylor’s claim that emissions had dipped over the preceding three months was true but not meaningful, in the context of an annual rising trend.

But it was not even necessarily true. As is visible in the quarterly chart, emissions were not lower in the September quarter of 2018 than they were in the preceding quarter.

Specifically, Taylor claimed that “total emissions are coming down right now”. This is only true if we are talking about “seasonally adjusted, weather-normalised total emissions”. The adjusted data are shown above. While the adjusted data went down between quarters, the actual emissions went up.

The process of adjustment is not unprincipled, and is used to see through the noise of our emissions data. “Seasonal adjustment” and “weather normalisation” are two separate processes.

Seasonal adjustment refers to the process of adjusting the emissions figures to account for the predictable seasonal fluctuations described earlier. Weather normalisation does the same, but takes into account individual temperature extremes, both hot and cold, during any given period, and adjusts accordingly.

Much as a golf handicap lets us compare the performance of golfers of differing abilities, these data adjustments tell us whether our emissions are tracking higher or lower than we might expect.

But if a golfer with a handicap of 10 goes around the course in 82 shots, we don’t declare that they have actually hit the ball only 72 times.

This is essentially what Taylor did in his interview with Cassidy. It is not correct to refer to these adjusted emissions data as our “total emissions”.

What does data adjustment mean?

Building on this, it is important to note that the adjusted data and actual data often disagree on whether emissions have increased between quarters. Since the Coalition took office in 2013, there have been 21 quarterly emissions data releases.

The actual quarterly emissions have increased nine times between quarters. The adjusted data says there have been 12 of these increases. And they have only agreed on whether there was an increase six times.

When one form of the data shows an increase and the other does not, the minister has a choice about which figure to highlight.

In the September quarter, the actual emissions gave bad news (an increase), and the adjusted emissions gave good news (a reduction). Taylor chose to refer to the adjusted data, as did the then environment minister Melissa Price, who had portfolio responsibility for emissions reduction at the time.

Today, this was flipped. The actual emissions showed good news (a reduction) and the adjusted data showed bad news (an increase).

It’s refreshing, then, to see Taylor choose to focus on the adjusted emissions data this time around, when he could have chosen the spin route and focused on the fact that the raw data showed a decrease between quarters.

So what does it all mean?

What we can say without any equivocation at all is that since 2015, in the wake of the carbon price repeal the preceding July, Australia’s greenhouse emissions have increased. On the government’s own projections , this trend is not expected to change.

Even if the government’s Climate Solutions Package delivers the amount of emissions reductions that have been promised (and it is unclear that it will), the overall effect will be to stabilise emissions rather than bring them down. This is because the government intends to use Kyoto carryover credits to help meet its Paris Agreement goal, rather than using fresh carbon reductions to deliver in full.




Read more:
Australia has two decades to avoid the most damaging impacts of climate change


Stabilisation is not enough. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear in its Special Report on 1.5℃ last year, deep cuts are required to ensure a safe climate. The Paris Agreement, while calling on all nations to do their part, says rich countries such as Australia should take the lead.

The need to reduce emissions is pressing. And while the raw emissions figures may be down this quarter, this is not meaningful progress. Far more meaningful is the fact that Australia has no effective policy to limit our impact on the global climate.The Conversation

Tim Baxter, Fellow – Melbourne Law School; Associate – Australian-German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Infographic: climate change and 2015’s year of wild weather


Andrew King, University of Melbourne

The annual review of extreme weather and climate events published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society today highlights how climate change is influencing the events that affect us the most. This table summarises each event and whether climate change played a role.

Across the globe, extreme heat events are linked with climate change, although El Niño provided a boost in 2015 leading to more records being broken. The human influence on rainfall and drought is less strong but we can see it in many events that were studied.

Our influence on the climate extends beyond temperature and rainfall. In the UK, the chance of very sunny winters (which sounds like an oxymoron!) has increased due to climate change. The record low sea ice extents, which have continued into 2016, are strongly associated with human influences.

While the majority of studies have been done on the developed world, more analyses of developing countries are included this year than in the past. Through collaborations between local experts and teams in the United States and Europe, a greater emphasis on extreme events in the developing world was possible.

This is important because the impacts of extreme events are often more severe in these areas than in wealthier regions.

The effects of climate change on extremes spread far and wide as human activities have radically altered our climate. We can expect to see more extreme events with a clear fingerprint of human-caused climate change in the coming years and decades.


The Conversation

Andrew King, Climate Extremes Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

2015’s record-breaking temperatures will be normal by 2030 – it’s time to adapt


Sophie Lewis, Australian National University

Generation Y has grown up in a rapidly warming world. According to the US National Climate Data Centre, every month since February 1985 has seen above average global temperatures, compared with the twentieth century. I have no memories of a “normal” month.

2016 is on track to be the hottest year on record, surpassing the previous records set in 2015 and in 2014. These are just a few of the flurry of recent record temperatures, which includes Australia’s hottest day, week, month, season and year.

The question now is what the future will look like. At some point in the decades to come, these record-breaking temperatures will not be rare; they will become normal. But when exactly?

In a new study just released in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, I (together with co-authors Andrew King and Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick) find that on the current greenhouse gas emissions trajectory, global temperatures like 2015 will by normal by 2030, and Australia’s record-breaking 2013 summer will likely be an average summer by 2035.

While we still have time to delay some of these changes, others are already locked in – cutting emissions will make no difference – so we must also adapt to a warmer world. This should be a sobering thought as world leaders gather in Marrakech to begin work on achieving the Paris Agreement which came into force last week.

Today’s extremes, tomorrow’s normal

The recent record-breaking temperatures have often been described as the “new normal”. For example, after the new global temperature record was set in 2016, these high temperatures were described as a new normal.

What is a new normal for our climate? The term has been used broadly in the media and in scientific literature to make sense of climate change. Put simply, we should get used to extremes temperatures, because our future will be extreme.

But without a precise definition, a new normal is limited and difficult to understand. If 2015 was a new normal for global temperatures, what does it mean if 2017, 2018, or 2019 are cooler?

In our study we defined the new normal as the point in time when at least half the following 20 years are warmer than 2015’s record breaking global temperatures.

We examined extreme temperatures in a number of state-of-the-art climate models from an international scientific initiative. We also explored how different future greenhouse gas emissions impact temperatures.

We used four different greenhouse gas scenarios, known as Representative Concentration Pathways, or RCPs. These range from a business-as-usual situation (RCP8.5) to a major cut to emissions (RCP2.6).

It is worth emphasising that real-world emissions are tracking above those covered by these hypothetical storylines.

2015’s record temperatures will likely become normal between 2020 and 2030.

Future extremes

Our findings were straightforward. 2015’s record-breaking temperatures will be the new normal between 2020 and 2030 according to most of the climate models we analysed. We expect within a decade or so that 2015’s record temperatures will likely be average or cooler than average.

By 2040, 2015’s temperatures were average or cooler than average in 90% of the models. This result was unaffected by reducing greenhouse gas emissions or not – we are already locked in to a significant amount of further warming.

We also looked at the timing of a new normal for different regions. Australia is a canary in the coal mine. While other regions don’t see extreme temperatures become the new normal until later in the century, Australia’s record-breaking 2013 summer temperatures will be normal by 2035 – according to the majority of the models we looked at.

At smaller spatial scales, such as for state-based based temperature extremes, we can likely delay record-breaking temperatures becoming the new normal by committing to significant greenhouse gas cuts. This would clearly reduce the vulnerability of locations to extreme temperatures.

Cutting emissions (top) and business as usual (bottom) makes little difference to the new normal globally.
Author provided

Living in a warmer world

If you like heading to the beach on hot days, warmer Australian summers seem appealing, not alarming.

But Australia’s position as a hot spot of future extremes will have serious consequences. The 2013 summer, dubbed the “angry summer”, was characterised by extreme heatwaves, widespread bushfires and a strain on infrastructure.

Our results suggest that such a summer will be relatively mild within two decades, and the hottest summers will be much more extreme.

My co-authors, Andrew and Sarah, and I all grew up in a world of above-average temperatures, but our future is in a world were our recent record-breaking temperatures will be mild. Our new research shows this is not a world of more pleasantly hot summer days, but instead of increasingly severe temperature extremes.

These significantly hotter summers present a challenge that we must adapt to. How will we protect ourselves from increases in excess heat deaths and increased fire danger, and our ecosystems from enhanced warming?

While we have already locked ourselves into a future where 2015 will rapidly become a new normal for the globe, we can still act now to reduce our vulnerability to future extreme events occurring in our region, both through cutting emissions and preparing for increased heat.

The Conversation

Sophie Lewis, Research fellow, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

It’s official: 2015 was the hottest year ever recorded


Janette Lindesay, Australian National University and Mark Howden, CSIRO

It’s official: 2015 was the hottest year on record. The US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has confirmed overnight that 2015 saw the global average temperature climbing to 0.90°C above the 20th-century average of 13.9°C. The record has been confirmed by the UK Met Office.

It’s been only a year since the record was previously broken, but 2015 stands out as an extraordinarily hot year. 2014, the previous hottest year, was 0.74°C above the global average. December 2015 marks the first time in the NOAA record a global monthly temperature anomaly has exceeded 1°C – it reached 1.11°C.

Every month since February 1985 has been warmer than average, and 2015 is the 39th consecutive year with above-average annual temperatures in an uninterrupted run that began in the mid 1970s. Ten months in 2015 beat previous records for those months.

The evidence that the so-called “global warming hiatus” is over is compelling – if it ever existed.

https://charts.datawrapper.de/9RvfW/index.html

Air temperatures over the land rose markedly to a new record of 1.33°C above average, and ocean temperatures also reached a new record anomaly of 0.74°C in 2015. The global ocean has absorbed up to 90% of the excess heat retained or accumulated by human activities since the industrial revolution, and ocean temperatures show clear warming trends both at the surface and deep down.

In 2015/2016 a strong El Niño event is bringing some of that heat buried in the ocean back to the surface.

The “perfect storm”

Global temperatures are influenced by both natural and human factors.

2015 saw the development of an El Niño event classed as one of the three strongest on record, comparable to those of 1982/83 and 1997/98.

These events are linked to higher global air temperatures. Since 1850 many of the warmest years have also been El Niño years. El Niño events are driven by changes in the winds across the Pacific Ocean, which move warm water from the western Pacific to the east.

In 2015 central Pacific sea surface temperatures were more than 3°C above average over an area of approximately 5.5 million square kilometres, around 70% of the size of the Australian continent. Air temperatures increase during El Niño events as heat is transferred from the ocean to the atmosphere.

Sea surface temperature anomalies, Oct-Dec 2015 showing the characteristic El Niño pattern of increases across the central to eastern Pacific
NOAA

But a strong El Niño event alone is not sufficient to account for the 2015 record temperature anomaly.

In May 2015 carbon dioxide concentrations reached a monthly value of 403.9 parts per million (ppm) – the highest ever recorded. The average concentration of CO₂ in 2015 may exceed 400 pppm for the first time in human history. CO₂ is the one of the principal greenhouse gases responsible for human-induced global warming.

Since 2008 the CO₂ concentration has increased by an average of 2.1 ppm per year, largely due to fossil fuel and land-use emissions, emphasising the significant impact of human activity on the atmosphere.

CO₂ concentrations now exceed pre-industrial levels by more than 40%, and the likelihood of this increase and the associated warming being due only to natural factors is vanishingly small.

Carbon dioxide exceeded 400 ppm in 8 months in 2015.
NOAA

Climate extremes everywhere

Across the globe 2015 was characterised by weather and climate extremes from floods and severe storms to droughts and heatwaves.

In Australia climate conditions are being pushed beyond our historical experience of natural climate variability and into new territory. Global warming has increased the likelihood of record-breaking temperatures by up to 100 times.

In 2015 records were broken once again across Australia, in a series of high temperature events particularly in Western Australia (January), Queensland (March), and the south-eastern states (October, November and December).

The Bureau of Meteorology 2015 Annual Climate Statement highlights October as particularly noteworthy. October 2015 was 2.89℃ warmer than the average October inn Australia. While this doesn’t make October the hottest month overall (that title still belongs to the summer months), it is the largest margin by which a monthly record has ever been broken.

High temperatures broke the internet (literally); led to cancelled sporting events in Victoria and South Australia; and added to severe bushfire conditions in several states.

October 2015 warmest on record with largest temperature anomaly.
Australia Bureau of Meteorology

In response to concerns about this ongoing warming and the associated heat extremes, the wine industry is exploring adaptation options including changing grape varieties; cereal crop, fruit, vegetable and milk producers are trying to reduce the impact of heatwaves and droughts on yields; and we need to change our behaviour and infrastructure to deal with the health impacts of more extreme temperatures and more frequent heatwaves.

We are all affected by global warming.

The necessity of mitigation

The climate and weather impacts of 2015 in Australia are examples of what is happening around the globe, adding to the overwhelming body of evidence of the reality and impacts of global warming.

The combination of a strong El Niño event with ongoing human-induced warming of the ocean and atmosphere set up the conditions for 2015. It is unlikely to be the last such record.

El Niño events are part of natural climate variability and will continue to occur, and until greenhouse gas emissions are reduced at least in line with the Paris Climate Agreement global temperatures will continue to rise for the foreseeable future.

As agreed by the governments of the world at the Paris UNFCCC meeting, the need for effective and urgent local, national and global action to reduce emissions has never been more pointed.

The Conversation

Janette Lindesay, Professor of Climatology, Australian National University and Mark Howden, Research Scientist, Agriculture Flagship, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

2015 in review


The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here's an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 7,200 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

2015, the year that was: Environment + Energy


Michael Hopkin, The Conversation

Environmental news, as a rule, doesn’t deal in triumphs. So the sight of leaders holding their arms aloft in celebration after clinching the historic Paris climate agreement will stand as a defining image of 2015 – a moment of cartharsis after more than two decades of infuriatingly sluggish climate diplomacy.

After two weeks of round-the-clock negotiations (and years of work beforehand), the Paris climate summit has delivered the first binding treaty under which all nations, rich and poor, will join the bid to limit global warming to “well under 2℃”, and possibly no more than 1.5℃.

The climate hasn’t been saved yet, despite vulnerable nations’ impressive success in lobbying for the 1.5℃ target to be included in the agreement. The emissions pledges made so far will fall well short of the goal, and will need significant strengthening under the review process enshrined in the agreement.

Nevertheless, getting all 196 parties to sign the deal was a diplomatic coup, six years after the disappointment and acrimony of the Copenhagen talks.

Midway through the conference we learned that global greenhouse emissions maybe, just maybe, have already peaked, but peaking is not enough – the agreement calls for the world to become effectively carbon-neutral by the second half of the century. The near-certainty that 2015 will be the hottest year on record is a reminder that global warming is well underway. Time and carbon budgets are tight.

Targets and auctions

The buildup to the climate summit dominated the agenda all year, in Australia and abroad. China, the world’s biggest greenhouse emitter, unveiled plans for a national emissions trading scheme, while Pope Francis made an influential call to action on the environment.

Come on world, sort it out.
Reuters/Tony Gentile

Domestically, Tony Abbott’s government pledged to cut emissions by 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2030 as its pre-Paris promise (a mediocre effort, according to some).

Earlier in the year it held its first reverse auction for the Emissions Reduction Fund, which will use public money to invest in emissions-reducing projects without a carbon tax. Doubts still remain over whether it is fit for purpose.

Energetic efforts

It was a torrid year for renewable energy, after the government succeeded in scaling back the Renewable Energy Target and told the Clean Energy Finance Corporation not to invest in wind farms (new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has now reversed that move).

Coal, on the other hand, was still in favour. After hitting a legal roadblock over skinks and snakes (but not greenhouse emissions), Indian firm Adani’s controversial Carmichael coal mine in Queensland has now been re-approved. Not only that, but Attorney General George Brandis struck back at the “radical activists” who opposed the approval, announcing plans to restrict green groups from waging similar “lawfare” in the future.

One of the reasons green groups oppose the Carmichael mine is the fact that the coal will be shipped across the Great Barrier Reef. Australia faced the prospect of international embarrassment as the UN World Heritage Committee weighed up whether to add the Reef to its official list of world heritage in danger – an ignominy generally reserved for heritage sites in war-torn places like Iraq and the Congo.

Not officially in danger – but not safe yet.
Underwater Earth/Catlin Seaview Survey/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

In the event Australia was reprieved after persuading the UN that it now has policies in place to safeguard the Reef. Progress will be reviewed in 2019, and as our Reef threats series pointed out, the problems are many and complex.

Into hot water

Elsewhere in the Pacific Ocean, scientists have watched the unfolding El Niño, which officially arrived in May and has steadily gathered in force since. As drought threatens to return to the Murray-Darling Basin, meteorologists are uncomfortably aware that El Niño’s effects on Australia can be harsh, unpredictable, and hot.

Speaking of heat, you wouldn’t have wanted to be sitting in Volkswagen’s boardroom as the news broke about the company’s systematic gaming of vehicle emissions testing, bringing worldwide condemnation. It’s still not clear how widespread the issue will turn out to be, but Australian diesel drivers will face a rough road ahead regardless – 2016 is the year that Australia’s lax vehicle emissions standards will finally be brought into line with much of the rest of the developed world, potentially wiping out much of the financial advantage of driving a diesel.

You want extra emissions with that?
EPA/JULIAN STRATENSCHULTE

Of course you could always catch a tram – or at least you might in a few years, if the many light rail projects planned for Australia come to fruition. After two years of roads-only infrastructure policy under Abbott, Turnbull has changed course and will invest in public transport too. Along with the appointment of cities minister Jamie Briggs, it’s a sign that the Canberra government might finally be starting to understand cities, which after all is where most of us live.

Power plays

One car company whose star was definitely on the rise was Tesla, which branched out from electric sports cars to unveil an affordable power storage battery for use with home solar panels. It has been hailed as a game-changer in the bid to wean households off fossil-fuelled electricity, although it’s still early days in in figuring out how to smooth out the intermittency issues that still beset renewable energy.

The uncertainty over renewables and the growing urgency about getting away from fossil fuels are two reasons why nuclear is still getting attention, even in Australia where the prospect of nuclear power is politically unpalatable.

In March, South Australia launched a Royal Commission on nuclear power, uranium mining and nuclear waste, to the bafflement of those who thought we’ve had all these debates already.

True, Australia does eventually need somewhere to store its current stockpile of low-level nuclear waste from sources such as medical scans – and to that end the government shortlisted six sites ahead of a decision next year.

Australia’s only nuclear reactor. But sooner or later we’ll have to stash the waste somewhere.
AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

But as The Conversation’s series on the future of nuclear around the world showed, other regions are grappling with bigger issues, from arms proliferation to the clean but still technically remote prospect of nuclear fusion power.

New year, new habits

While the politicians grapple with energy policy and emissions targets, what can you do to tread more lightly on the planet in 2016?

You might not be ready to live in a tiny house, go dumpster diving, or move to an ecovillage.

But every little helps, so you perhaps could colour-code your fridge to waste less food, heat your home more efficiently, eat less meat, or
become a cyclist (or maybe even just be nice to one).

You might also spare a thought for Australia’s animals – and on that front there has been some encouraging news amid the usual environmental concerns.
While things look grim for many species, like Leadbeater’s possum or orange-bellied parrots, this year conservationists
declared victory for Australia’s humpback whale population – more evidence that environmentalism can still conjure up the odd moment of triumph.

The Conversation

Michael Hopkin, Environment + Energy Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Growth in fossil fuel emissions slowed in 2015, so have we finally reached the peak?


Pep Canadell, CSIRO

Despite robust global economic growth over the past two years, worldwide carbon emissions from fossil fuels grew very little in 2014, and might even fall this year.

A report released today by the Global Carbon Project has found that fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide grew by only 0.6% in 2014, breaking with the fast emissions growth of 2-3% per year since early 2000s. Even more unexpectedly, emissions are projected to decline slightly in 2015 with continuation of global economic growth above 3% in Gross Domestic Product.

This is the first two-year period in a multi-decade record where the global economy shows clear signs of decoupling from fossil fuel emissions. In the past, every single break or decline in the growth of carbon emissions was directly correlated with a downturn in the global or regional economy.

This time is different.

However, it is quite unlikely that 2015 is the much-sought-after global peak in emissions which will lead us down the decarbonisation path required to stabilise the climate.

In a separate paper published today in Nature Climate Change, we look in more detail at the possibility of reaching global peak emissions.


Future Earth/Global Carbon Project

What caused it?

The principal cause of this unexpected lack of growth in emissions is the slowdown in the production and consumption of coal-based energy in China in 2014, followed by a decline in 2015.

This has taken China’s emissions growth from close to double digits during the past decade to an extraordinary low of 1.2% growth in 2014 and an unexpected decline by about 4% projected for 2015.

Although China is only responsible for 27% of global emissions, it has dominated the growth in global emissions since early 2000s. Therefore, a slowdown in China’s emissions has an immediate global impact.

Further adding to this main cause, emissions from industrialised economies, including Australia, Europe and the United States, have declined by 1.3% per year on average over the past decade, partially supported by extraordinary growth of renewable energy sources.

In the past every time emissions have fallen has been associated with economic recession.
CSIRO/Global Carbon Project

Have we reached global peak emissions?

Most likely not. One key uncertainty in answering this question is the future of coal in China. But China is pushing to achieve peak carbon consumption as early as possible (and emissions by 2030), and to phase out the dirtiest types of coal from the nation’s energy mix, largely in response to a pollution crisis affecting many of its large urban areas. It is well within the possibilities that growth in coal emissions in China will not resume any time soon, and certainly not at the fast pace of the previous decade.

A strong basis for this assessment is the remarkable growth in non-fossil fuel energy sources such as hydro, nuclear and renewables. These accounted for more than half of the growth in new energy in 2014, with a very similar mix during the first three-quarters of this year. Such structural changes, if continued, could bring China’s peak emissions much earlier than anyone is anticipating and certainly well before 2030.

Although it is unlikely that we have reached global peak emissions, it is very likely that 2015 marks a new era of slower growth in fossil fuel emissions. This is perhaps the first sign of a looming peak on a not-too-distant horizon.

Where from here?

Recent modelling analyses of post-2020 pledges by over 180 countries to reduce emissions to 2030 (the so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) show that peak emissions is not to come any time soon. Under the pledges made, global emissions continue to rise to 2030.

This might well be the future. But models used for such analysis were not that different from those that completely missed the very rapid rise of the Chinese economy in the decade of 2000 and perhaps now its rapid decarbonisation.

However, China is not alone in this game. Industrialised countries plus China, accounting for half of global fossil fuel emissions, have pledged to reduce or stabilise emissions absolutely by 2030.

But the other half belongs to less-developed nations whose pledges do not include absolute emission reductions but departures from business-as-usual scenarios (meaning emissions can increase, but not as fast). This emphasises the disproportionate importance of international climate finances required to help that “other” half of the emissions to peak and join the decline of the rest.

2015 has been an extraordinary year, and not just because of China. Emissions from Australia, Europe, Japan and Russia have all come down as part of longer or more recent trends. Installed wind capacity reached 51 gigawatts in 2014, an amount greater than the total global wind capacity just a decade ago. Solar capacity is 50 times bigger than it was ten years ago.

And emissions from land-use change, albeit with large uncertainties and high emissions from Indonesian fires this year, have been on a declining trend for over a decade. These trends are not stopping here.

Yet the current emissions path is not consistent with stabilising the climate at a level below 2℃ global warming.

If we maintain the level of 2015 emissions, the remaining carbon budget before setting the earth on a path that exceeds 2℃ is less than 30 years away, unless we bet on unproven negative emissions technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere later in the century.

But 2015 is a historic year to galvanise further action. The trends in emissions are favourable, and countries have the opportunity to negotiate significantly higher levels of ambition to decouple economic growth from emissions.

The Conversation

Pep Canadell, CSIRO Scientist, and Executive Director of Global Carbon Project, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.