The International Energy Agency has reported that, for the third year in a row, global carbon dioxide emissions have been flat, despite the fact that in 2016 the world economy grew by 3.1 percent. China, the world’s number one emitter of CO2, saw a decline of 1 percent, thanks to increased use of nuclear power.
The United States, in the number two position, had a decline of 3 percent in CO2 emissions last year despite economic growth of 1.6 percent.
US emissions peaked in 2007 and have been declining more or less steadily ever since. They are now down to the level of 1992, although the economy is 80 percent larger than it was 25 years ago. There are many market-based reasons for this. Automobiles, for instance, are much more fuel efficient than they were then, and smart thermostats regulate heating of houses more efficiently as well. Saving fuel saves money.
But the main reason is shale gas, thanks to the fracking revolution. Fracking has brought down the price of natural gas to where it can compete on equal terms with coal as a fuel for power plants. And natural gas emits far less carbon dioxide per unit of power produced. Last year, for the first time, natural gas use in power plants exceeded coal. That is unlikely to change. Even if the Trump administration succeeds in rolling back much of the Obama EPA’s anti-coal regulations, the long-term outlook for the coal industry is decidedly bearish. Its use declined fully 11 percent last year. And converting coal-fired plants to gas is easy, the reverse most definitely is not, creating a ratchet effect.
Another reason is that the 21st-century economy is increasingly decoupling from energy. It used to be that a 1 percent increase in GDP meant a 1 percent increase in oil consumption. But that hasn’t been true for more than three decades. In 2015, what economists call the energy intensity (energy per unit of GDP) declined by a striking 3.4 percent.
The simple fact is that what drove economic growth in the late 19th and 20th centuries–big industry like steel manufacturing–is not what drives the 21st Century economy, which is computers, software, and the Internet. It takes a lot of energy to manufacture steel. It takes practically none to create and utilize software.
We need a few more years to see if CO2 emissions have peaked–three years does not an irreversible trend make–but it’s possible, perhaps likely, that the environmental problem of CO2 emissions is solving itself—despite rapidly rising energy use in developing countries. If so, it will be thanks to market forces and technology, not bureaucrats.