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Emissions Could Peak Far Sooner Than We Thought
But is this enough?
We are on course to ruin the planet. That isn’t hyperbole, conjecture, or even theory; the science is rock solid. The hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide we have pumped into the atmosphere are already having a catastrophic effect on global climate and weather patterns, as the past few years have clearly shown us. Yet, as it stands, we are set to emit yet more hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, which will push humanity and the planet’s ecology to the very limit and past it. Despite our best efforts to enforce change and mitigate this disaster, we are still light years away from achieving our climate goals of restricting global warming to an “acceptable” 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, recent research by the IEA gives us a shred of hope that we might just prevail and save the Earth from ourselves.
Each year, the IEA releases a report called the World Energy Outlook, which measures current emissions, current policy, future policy and future energy projects to calculate our progress towards net-zero by 2050 and restricting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This report has been damning for the past few years, finding that we are way off the mark, but this year was different. It found that global carbon dioxide emissions could peak as early as this year or at least in 2025, which is a massive step forward. That is a vast leap forward from last year, which predicted peak emissions in the late 2020s.
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It is important to say that this isn’t a prediction we can base decisions on. This peak emissions timeframe was calculated using IEA’s STEPS scenario (stated policies scenario). This looks at the overall direction of energy system progression based on a detailed review of the current policy landscape to ascertain what our emissions might look like in the near future. In other words, the IEA is looking at what a government is saying it will do, not what it actually does, and as we know, those are two very different things. If governments do climate U-turns (like we recently saw in Britain) or market forces derail policies and plans, then the outcomes will be very different. As such, the IEA is cautious of claiming we will hit peak emissions imminently. However, the fact that this is even a possibility shows remarkable progress.
So, what has changed? How come the IEA has a far more optimistic outlook than last year?
Well, over the last year, international policy has changed on coal, oil and gas, and these planet-wrecking energy sources are set to reach their peak demand before 2030 for the first time, whereas the 2022 report found their peak would happen in the mid-2030s. As these are some of the most polluting industries, this change makes a massive difference to projected global emissions. Why has this change happened? Well, renewable energy is now so cheap and easy to install that it is out-competing fossil fuel power. Not only that, but Russia’s war on Ukraine and the following sanctions meant the world suddenly valued the energy security renewables offer. As such, the world is adopting solar and wind at a far faster pace than they were last year. Another critical factor was China. In previous years, it had to turn to extremely polluting coal energy to power its ravenous economic growth, as it was cheap and readily available. This, combined with its gargantuan size, meant they could have easily undermined any emissions progress in the rest of the world. However, over the past year, China’s economic growth has slowed, allowing them to adopt low-carbon energy sources far faster. As such, China is now predicted to reach peak fossil fuel demand by 2024.
Obviously, all of this is good news for us and the planet. But that isn’t the whole story.
You see, the IEA found in this report that the current climate policies remain far from sufficient to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In other words, at our current rate, we will overshoot our target of net-zero by 2050, and in doing so, will beckon in a climate disaster. However, this warning came with a caveat. You see, it turns out that the path to 1.5 degrees Celsius remains open, thanks to the “recent acceleration in clean energy.” So, we can just about avoid this self-made Armageddon by the skin of our teeth.
Above is Carbon Brief’s analysis of the IEA data. The dark blue line shows the current policy prediction, which, according to the IPCC, would lead to 3 degrees Celsius of warming and utter climate chaos and death worldwide. The red line shows the IEA’s STEPS scenario (i.e. pledges of future policy by governments), with peak emissions around 2023 but failing to meet 1.5 degrees Celsius or net-zero by 2050. The yellow line is the path we must take to avoid a climate disaster. As you can see, we are incredibly close to both hitting our 1.5 degree target and absolutely missing it by a country mile. It could go either way, depending on how governments honour their word. Which is damn worrying.
The IEA’s findings also align with a recent study published in Nature that found that the world’s carbon budget for stopping the Earth from heating 1.5C above pre-industrial levels could run out in the next six years. A carbon budget looks at the maximum amount of total man-made carbon dioxide emissions that would limit global warming to a given level. This study estimated that there are only 250 billion tonnes of carbon budget left before we break the 1.5 degree barrier. For some context, we currently emit nearly 38 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. As such, they found that the window of opportunity to keep the global climate under control is “rapidly closing.”
Climate change is no longer an issue of the future; it is an issue of now that will affect every human on this planet and future generations for centuries. We are living in a nexus; how we act now will determine the conditions we and our descendants will face. Do we band together, face this self-made menace, and keep this planet a haven for humanity? Or do we drag our feet, give lame economic excuses, and condemn ourselves and the future of humanity to a broken, cruel, ferocious and unforgiving environment? We will be remembered for whichever path we collectively choose, and time is running out.
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