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Carbon Emissions Rising at the Slowest Rate in Decades. Why’s That?

Globally, carbon emissions are rising. But they are doing so at the slowest rate since the 1980s. That’s the conclusion from oil giant BP, which says that the reason is that utilities are using less coal and they are using more renewable energy. And the corporate world has embraced the change.

Specifically, renewable energy supplies rose by 12% because of falling prices and improving technologies while the use of fossil fuels rose ever so slightly because low prices kept producers from over-exploring and adding greatly to the existing supply. Coal demand, meanwhile, dropped in both the United States and China.

The Houston Chronicle profiled BP’s annual report, which said the climb in carbon emissions amounted to a 0.1% increase from 2016. That’s the third year in a row that those releases have remained flat or have fallen.

China and the United States are the two biggest emitters, ranking first and second, respectively. In this country, carbon dioxide emission have dropped from 6.13 billion metric tons in 2007 to 5.35 billion metric tons last year, the story says. That’s because natural gas is replacing coal-fired generation. As for China, the paper says that it released 9.12 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide last year, which is down from a recent peak of 9.22 billion in 2014.

“While welcome, it is not yet clear how much of this break from the past is structural and will persist,” Chief Executive Bob Dudley said, in a statement. “We need to keep up our focus and efforts on reducing carbon emissions. BP supports the aims set out in the COP21 Paris meetings and is committed to playing our part to help achieve them.”

The Trump administration, of course, has backed out of the Paris climate accord — a move that has prompted a backlash among many Fortune 500 companies that say they are committed to the agreement regardless of Washington’s policies. At the recent Environmental Leader conference in Denver, company-after-company said that national policies are less relevant than market forces, which are requiring them to offer low-carbon solutions.

Still, the chasm between the developed and the developing worlds remains formidable, especially over the level of resources that the wealthier nations will be giving to the poorer ones. That includes both financial assistance and technological help. At the same conference, multinationals operating in the developed world said that they apply the same environmental standards regardless of geography. 

While some will argue that China’s commitment is too far down the road (2030) and that its word is not binding, it does remain a positive step. Consider that BP’s Energy Outlook says that heat-trapping emissions will rise by 29 percent through 2035, coming mostly from the emerging economies.

Specifically, BP’s outlook expects global energy consumption to climb by 41 percent from 2015 to 2035. That’s an annual growth rate of 1.5 percent. While most of that increase will come from the developed world, energy use in the advanced countries will only slowly creep up, mainly because of new efficiencies. It says that oil, natural gas and coal will each comprise about 27 percent of the energy mix with the rest coming from nuclear, hydroelectricity and renewables.

A paradox is thus unfolding, as the emerging countries are trying to modernize their nations and their people’s living standards. They need access to inexpensive and abundant fuels, which electrify their communities and their economies. But the world’s most prevalent fuel used in electric generation is falling out of favor: coal.

GE Power & Water said that much of the developing world will need access to modern forms of electricity. U.S. companies have a role to play, not only in helping to build power plants in those locations but perhaps, in selling the fuel.

“U.S. LNG exports are already being positioned to support Europe and Asia,” Brian Gutknecht, product marketing general manager for GE Power & Water, told this writer earlier, referring to the super-cooled gas. “In many cases that will put gas pricing below coal. In other places like China, it will require tapping into their own unconventional gas together with more stringent emissions requirements to displace coal.”

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2 thoughts on “Carbon Emissions Rising at the Slowest Rate in Decades. Why’s That?

  1. Hello Mr. Silverstein, What about methane emissions – they have gone up due to increased use of natural gas and have large and negative impacts on climate change. Be great if you’d address this critical issue. Thanks very much.

    • Excellent question, Amy: methane as you know is significantly more potent than CO2, although it is not as long lasting. The Trump administration is now in the process of trying to undo the methane rules enacted by the Obama administration — and effort that failed legislatively.

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