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Science- Global Carbon Dioixide Emissions Lower

We can cut emissions without a global deal

  • 07 November 2013
  • New Scientist

A slowdown in the pace of our emissions shows that nations can make cuts without a UN agreement and without

jeopardising economic growth

HAVE you ever thought that switching to low-energy light bulbs or buying a hybrid car is pointless? It’s not. All

those little changes do actually add up.

We haven’t fixed global warming, but new evidence suggests that the world has taken its foot off the gas when it

comes to carbon dioxide emissions. In 2012, the growth in emissions was 1.1 per cent, compared with an average

of 2.9 per cent since 2000. Perhaps more importantly, the rise was less than a third of the 3.5 per cent growth in

global GDP (see “First sign that humanity is slowing its carbon surge“). This means that economic growth is finally

starting to be “decoupled” from emissions. The leap has largely been achieved by incremental, local initiatives;

individual choices such as switching light bulbs are an important factor.

This growing trend is seen in more and more major countries – most notably China, the world’s largest emitter. It is

an affirmation of what economists call the environmental Kuznets curve after Nobel prizewinning economist

Simon Kuznets of Harvard University. He argued that beyond a certain stage of economic development countries

start to use resources better and cut pollution.

It also reflects the fact that, even without a global deal on fighting climate change, two-thirds of the world now

operates under some kind of law or strategy for limiting national emissions: plan B, if you will. This unilateralism

broke out at the Cancún climate talks three years ago (New Scientist, 18 December 2010, p 3) and has since taken

hold. There is a lot of self-interest involved, such as cutting smog and increasing the security of energy supplies.

But does that matter, if emissions cuts happen?

Of course, there is no guarantee that this is a turning point. Much of the remarkable US volte-face on emissions is

due to cheap shale gas, not renewable energy sources. And to curtail warming at below 2 °C, we need more than a

flatlining of emissions; we need cuts in excess of 2 per cent a year until mid-century.

But what the 2012 figures show is that we can cut emissions without tearing up the world as we know it. We don’t

have to abandon economic growth or make hair-shirt sacrifices.

It still won’t be easy. What is needed is incrementalism, built on self-interested improvements in energy efficiency,

a reduced dependence on coal, continued promotion of greener lifestyles, and investment in low-carbon

renewables and nuclear power.

To that end, it is good to see this week’s call from four leading climate scientists for environmental groups to

abandon their opposition to nuclear power.

It is easy to be pessimistic about the UN climate talks, which resume in Warsaw, Poland, next week. But the good

news is that, while a global deal would clearly be a good thing, we could be on the way to saving the planet

without it. And every one of us should now know that changing the light bulbs really can help to change the world.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Deal or no deal”

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