The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that energy-related CO2 emissions in 2016 were the same as those in 2015, marking the third straight year of flat emissions. Global energy emissions remained at 32.1 gigatons, despite growth in the global economy of over 3%.
Changes in annual energy sector emissions varied by region in 2016. While emissions remained the same in Europe, emissions fell in the two largest energy consumers and CO2 emitters: the U.S. and China. The U.S. saw the biggest decrease in CO2 emissions. As the growth of shale gas and renewable power displaced coal, U.S. emissions fell by 160 million tons or about 3%. China’s emissions fell by about 1% in 2016. This too was due in part to the displacement of coal in the power sector. In 2016, five new nuclear reactors came online in China, and its power sector also saw increasing shares of renewables and natural gas. The emissions decrease the U.S. and China offset increases in most of the rest of the world.
Although this is not the first multi-year period with flat or declining global emissions, the IEA emphasizes the fact that the current period is occurring at a time of global economic growth. Historically, the growth rates of the global economy and CO2 emissions have largely risen and fallen together. However, more recently these growth rates have “decoupled,” and the growth rate of CO2 emissions has dropped to near 0% while the growth rate of the global economy has remained positive. IEA identifies market forces, technology cost reductions, and concerns about climate change and air pollution as the main forces behind this decoupling.