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‘Remarkable year’: could 2012 mark the beginning of a carbon emissions slowdown?

Global carbon dioxide emissions hit another new record of 34.5 billion tons last year, according to a new report by the Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, but there may be a silver lining. Dubbing 2012 a “remarkable year,” the report found that the rate of carbon emission’s rise slowed considerably even as economic growth continued upward.

CO2 emissions, which are fueling climate change, have risen on average 2.9 percent every year in the past decade. But in 2012, emissions rose only 1.1 percent (when leap year is accounted for) even as the global economy grew by 3.5 percent.

“In 2012, a ‘decoupling’ of the increase in CO2 emissions from global economic growth (in GDP) took place, which points to a shift towards less fossil-fuel intensive activities, more use of renewable energy and increased energy saving,” reads the report.

This decoupling between CO2 emissions and economic growth is what governments, experts, and scientists have long been calling for. While the change in 2012 is slight—and overall emissions still hit a record new high—the report says this could represent a “shift to less fossil-fuel intensive activities.”

How did this happen? For one thing, global coal consumption slowed down last year; coal is the world’s most carbon-intensive fuel source. Although coal consumption rose by 0.9 percent in 2012, this is significantly below the 4 percent average rise over the last 10 years.

China, the world’s largest consumer of coal, ended its economic stimulus package last year and ramped up its hydropower production. Meanwhile, the U.S. is using less coal due to a shale gas boom and increasing renewable energies. However, even as advances were made in China and the U.S, many EU countries upped their consumption of coal last year. In fact the UK consumed 24 percent more coal than in 2011.

Wind turbine in the Dominican Republic. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

Wind turbine in the Dominican Republic. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.

Overall, China’s emissions increased 3 percent in 2012, but that’s far below its ten year average of 10 percent. Emissions in the U.S. dropped by 4 percent, continuing a trend of declining emissions. While the EU saw its emissions drop by 1.6 percent and Russia saw a decline of 1 percent. Still, emissions increased significantly in both India (7 percent) and Japan (6.2 percent), which turned to coal power after the Fukushima disaster.

“[2012] may be the first sign of a slowdown in the increase in global CO2 emissions, and of ultimately declining global emissions,” reads the report, but only if nations are increasingly proactive about tackling their emissions.

Still, even as the report highlights what might be the beginning of a positive trend, emissions cuts are not moving fast enough by far to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Head of climate activist organization, Bill McKibben, dubbed the new 2012 data as “good news but nowhere near good enough.”

“The solution we need here is dictated by physics, and at the moment the physics is busy melting the Arctic and acidifying the ocean,” McKibben told the BBC. “We can’t just plateau or go up less, we have to very quickly try and get the planet off fossil fuels.”

In addition to disintegrating Arctic sea ice and causing ocean acidification, scientists say the climate change is also raising sea levels, worsening extreme weather, changing precipitation patterns, and imperiling countless species. The world’s poorest and most vulnerable are expected to be the hardest hit by a warming world.

If governments are serious about tackling climate change, many of the world’s fossil fuel reserves will have to be left untouched, according to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). For the first time, this report outlined a global carbon budget: global society can only burn 800-880 gigatonnes of CO2 in order to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. As of 2011, 60 percent of this had already been spent (530 gigatons as of 2011).

U.S. carbon emissions are second only to those of China. Historically, the U.S. is the world's largest carbon emitter. To date, the U.S. has no federal legislation to reduce its carbon emissions. Click image to enlarge.
U.S. carbon emissions are second only to those of China. Historically, the U.S. is the world’s largest carbon emitter. To date, the U.S. has no federal legislation to reduce its carbon emissions. Click image to enlarge.

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