Science & Environment

Emissions and growth continue their dance

Power lines lead away from the Kraftwerk Westfallen coal-burning power plant
Could emissions be used as an indicator of economic activity?

It's a combination as tightly coupled as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: wherever economic growth leads, greenhouse gas emissions must follow.

And after a break of a year or so caused by the recession, both are out on the dance floor again, spinning to a tune that if anything is getting faster.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), set up by rich countries in the aftermath of the 1970s oil crisis, now finds an increasing amount of its time devoted to the potentially much bigger crisis of climate change.

And its latest warning - that global carbon dioxide emissions from energy use rose by 5% during 2010 - is casting a new layer of doubt on the ability of governments to meet the targets they've signed up to on curbing climate change.

The IEA figures only deal with energy, but there's little to indicate that emissions are coming down in any other sector, except perhaps deforestation where a global decline in illegal logging has been documented recently.

The buzz-word used by many governments, and international organisations such as the UN Environment Programme, is "decoupling" - the separation of the partners, severing the Astaire of growth from the Rogers of emissions.

To a certain extent, it's happening. Growth has risen faster than emissions, at global and national levels, and more is to come: China's latest national plan, for example, calls for a 40-45% reduction in carbon intensity without compromising economic development.

But it's not happening anything like fast enough to meet goals outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which talks of emissions peaking by 2020, preferably by 2015, if the target of limiting the global temperature rise to 2C from pre-industrial levels is to be met.

You may recall that many more nations favour a 1.5C target than 2C, which implies an even tougher peak year.

In fact, so closely are growth and emissions linked that one commentator, Forbes' Jeff McMahon, has a post up whose title suggests we could use emissions as an indicator of economic activity.

man with chainsaw in Sumatra
There has been some good news in the rate of illegal logging

Modelling of emissions and their climate impact shows that the peak year can come later than 2020 and still hit long-term targets - but then more stringent curbs are needed in subsequent years.

This is a more expensive pathway too. The IEA, for example, says that energy investments necessary to halve emissions by 2050 would amount to $316 trillion (£191 trillion) - 17% more than would be invested in the energy sector under "business as usual" policies - but every year of delay adds $500bn (£300bn) to the bill, it says.

All of which raises a very simple question: is this transition going to happen?

History is not a source of confidence. More than 20 years after Margaret Thatcher told the UN General Assembly that "whole areas of our planet could be subject to drought and starvation if the pattern of rains and monsoons were to change as a result of the destruction of forests and the accumulation of greenhouse gases," the mismatch between the scientific analysis of the problem and the political response is as stark as ever.

In that same speech, she warned that "It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay"... yet every time the negotiators of the UN climate convention (UNFCCC) come together in an attempt to build a political response commensurate with the science, squabbling over responsibility is exactly what happens.

Just this week Oxfam is warning anew of the consequences of not tackling climate change. If they're correct, food prices could double within 20 years, with climate change the main culprit.

The sting in the tail is that if countries are going to have to spend more money on food, and perhaps on other essentials too, that leaves less cash available for investment in a green technological transition - especially with many economies still labouring under huge debts generated by the recession.

There are myriad forecasts indicating that it can be done, with or without nuclear power.

But will it?