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February 17, 2020

“Defying expectations of a rise, global carbon dioxide emissions flatlined in 2019” – IEA

The world's "all-of-the above" approach to reducing CO2 emissions is working!

According to a press release from the International Energy Agency, the world’s official scorekeeper for energy stuff, global CO2 emissions from energy flatlined in 2019 despite almost universal expectations that they would continue a rapid increase absent a severe recession, a pandemic, or drastic actions by governments around the world. 2019’s reported emissions are below the level the UN IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) says we have to achieve in 2020 in order to be on track for warming only in the range of 0.3 to 1.7 degrees Celsius in this century, their most optimistic scenario. Needless to say, this news is as pleasant as it is surprising.

How did this happen?

There has more rollout of both renewables and natural gas than almost anyone had predicted. That’s partly because natural gas prices are much, much lower than most predictions. Nuclear is making a comeback. Coal is being displaced faster than expected

CO2 emission from energy in the developed world decreased by just as much from 2018 to 2019 as it increased in the developing world, 400 million metric tons (MMts).  The developing world rolled out new coal facilities as well as natural gas, renewables (a little), and nuclear (especially in China); the developed world retired coal facilities. Relatively mild weather worldwide in 2019 meant less winter heating and less summer cooling than in 2018.

In the developed world, winds and solar displaced coal for 110MMts of savings; natural gas replacing coal was directly responsible for 100MMMts of savings, and new nuclear generation, especially in Japan which had shut down its nukes after Fukushima, saved 50MMts. The worldwide leader in CO2 emission reductions was… drum roll please… The USA, thanks both to renewables and natural gas. Abundant natural gas also helps renewables, which produce intermittent but clean electricity, replace coal, which produces reliable but dirty baseline power. Often the only way to maintain grid reliability after shutting down a coal plant is to know that there are backup gas plants ready to fire up on a moment’s notice when the wind doesn’t blow and/or the sun doesn’t shine.

What does it mean for climate change?

For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume the UN IPCC models are accurate in predicting what level of emissions will lead to what level of global warming by 2100.  The IPCC spells out four scenarios called Representative Concentration Pathways (RPCs) for emissions and then predicts the range of expected warming under each of these.


As you can see, RPC 2.6 has the least emissions. We have to dip into the RPC database to find that 34 MMts of CO2 are predicted from the energy sector under RP2.6 for 2020 (there is no prediction for 2019). There were actually, according to the IEA, 33MMts; and so we’re one year and one million metric tons ahead of schedule.

The IPCC chart below shows the range of warming expected under each scenario.


The IPCC says that, under RPC2.6, it is highly likely that warming in this century will be between 0.3 and 1.7 degrees Celsius, well below the apocalyptic levels predicted under the other scenarios.

[The IPCC charts and predictions above come for the IPCC’s Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report.]

What next?

2019 is only one year. 2020 may well see a further reduction because of the coronavirus cutting into energy consumption; but that will hopefully be a statistical fluke. Although we are ahead of RPC 2.6 for the moment, staying on track for RPC 2.6 requires large further reductions in emissions and/or taking large amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere by reforestation, improved plant sequestration, and perhaps mechanical removal.

The IEA report shows that an "all-of-the-above" approach is succeeding in controlling emissions while making room for growth in the developing world. It tells us we have no need to panic, that progress is being made and further progress is possible, even likely, without drastic lifestyle changes or draconian controls on individual behavior. But it also tells us that progress is not guaranteed.

For the next decade, the largest reductions will come from completely phasing out coal. Natural gas is essential to that and nuclear very important as well, especially in the developing world. We don’t want to stop fracking for natural gas unless we want to stop the progress towards emissions reduction which is happening. We don’t want to allow NIMPBYism to make the construction of renewables, nuclear plants, transmission lines, and gas pipelines impossible. We do want to make cheap American natural gas available worldwide. We do want to accelerate the rollout of nuclear, especially in the developing world. We do want to continue making wind, especially offshore wind, and solar cheaper to deploy.

The IEA report was a surprise. We have much still to learn from it.

 See also:

Plants to the Rescue

The Ideal Green Solution

Trees Are the Right End of the Stick for CO2 Reduction in Vermont

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