Sunday, March 15, 2015

Energy Carbon Use May Have Peaked

Global energy-sector carbon emissions did not increase in 2014, the IEA said. It is the first time in history that gains in efficiency have been large enough to balance out increases in activity.

There were recession worries in many areas in 2014 but global economic output increased 3 percent, considered a normal rate of growth. An energy independence initiative in China must have helped. Japan and Europe are seeing more self-conscious energy policies after concerns about nuclear safety and regional stability, and any official attention will tend to lead to improvements. In North America, programs of official labels and incentives seem to be making a difference in efficiency.

Energy production and consumption involve durable equipment, so it is hard to make rapid gains. Looking at the most visible example, only five percent of the gains from improved motor vehicle design are seen in the first year if vehicles last 20 years on average. This delayed impact also means that if there were efficiencies last year, there will be more this year and next. Probably it is too optimistic to say that carbon emissions can be held steady, but the results of 2014 show that it is reasonable to make the attempt.

None of this good news is reason for complacency. A steady level of carbon emissions means that atmospheric carbon, which is already too high, will continue to rise. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is double what it was just one lifetime ago, and the only thing to stop the Greenland ice sheet (one of the two great ice caches in the world) from melting out completely is to reduce atmospheric carbon below its current levels. We don’t have a clue about how we might be able to accomplish that, but if we go from an accelerating rate of deterioration to a steady rate of deterioration, as the latest report from IEA suggests, that still counts as a step forward.