Kudos on climate progress

A historic moment may have been reached in 2014-15 as carbon pollution did not go up even as the global economy did. This decoupling of emissions from prosperity is cause for gratitude.

Workers unload coal at a storage site along a railway station in Hefei, Anhui province. China expects to lay off 1.8 million workers in the coal and steel sectors as part of its efforts to reduce industrial overcapacity.

One reason for the world’s plodding progress in halting climate change has been the stubborn notion that fossil fuels remain the best fuel for economic growth. Studies have tried to dispute this. Now the proof may be in the sky.

According to the International Energy Agency in Paris, carbon emissions from the energy sector stayed flat for the past two years even as the global economy grew by more than 3 percent. The IEA called this a “decoupling” of economic growth from carbon dioxide emissions.

If it keeps up, this delinking could be a paradigm-shifting, man-on-the-moon moment, not just for the future of the atmosphere but in helping to challenge other old ways of thinking about humanity’s common stake in conserving the planet and its resources.

The good news in this IEA report should bring another result: gratitude for progress already made. That does not mean complacency about doing more to push energy efficiency or alternative sources. Rather, appreciation for what has been done will help reduce the often badgering, pessimistic, or even fearful tone of public debate about global warming.

It is difficult to know the exact causes for the delinking of growth and carbon pollution. A big one may lie in China, the world’s biggest carbon emitter. While its economy has slowed, China is also making faster progress than expected toward its goal of capping emissions by 2030, according to two studies. The European Union, meanwhile, has boosted its share of renewable energy and reduced demand for fossil fuels.

In the United States, a rush to substitute natural gas for coal in power plants has cut pollution while car manufacturers are racing to develop more fuel-efficient vehicles. Last year, energy-related emissions in the US dropped about 2 percent.

Globally, prices for solar and wind energy continue to fall. The result, says the IEA, is that renewable power production accounted for nearly 90 percent of all new generation capacity in 2015.

The agency did take note of four previous periods when emissions fell or were flat. But those were at times of global economic weakness.

New technologies and bold government policies are helping the world become less carbon intensive in its energy use. But sometimes humanity itself must simply shift thinking on the role of old fuels to prosperity, and whether wealth requires exploitation. 

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